Beyond Physical Needs: Mental Health Care During a Disaster

A woman hugs a child in a disaster relief tentThe threat of natural disasters, house fires, or other emergencies brings to mind immediate physical safety concerns, such as the loss of food and shelter, as well as health and medical issues like injuries, poor sanitation, and limited access to clean drinking water. But what about one’s emotional state of mind? The stress associated with experiencing a disaster can be unfathomable to those of us who have never experienced such crises. To help people cope with these stressors, disaster relief volunteers are deployed to areas affected by disasters and these teams often include mental health professionals who can help people address overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety, and grief.

Martha Teater, MA, LMFT is one such volunteer, and she shared her experiences as a disaster relief mental health volunteer in an interview with Her experiences led her to become interested in understanding and managing compassion fatigue, and she provides trainings on the topic for mental health professionals. Compassion fatigue is not limited to counselors working in disaster relief situations, though; mental health professionals can experience compassion fatigue as a result of their everyday practices as well.

Martha’s upcoming continuing education presentation for, Sustaining Compassion: Put the Oxygen Mask on Yourself First!, takes place at 9 a.m. on September 26, 2014, and is available for two CE credits at no additional cost to members.

1. How did you get involved as a disaster relief mental health volunteer?

I got involved in disaster mental health following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I had not done anything like that before, but felt compelled to go. I stayed in a shelter in Baton Rouge for 10 days and found it to be a rich and rewarding experience. Since then I’ve provided disaster mental health through the American Red Cross both locally and out of town for larger disasters. I try to deploy about once a year. The last time I went out was following Superstorm Sandy.

Martha Teater

Martha Teater, MA, LMFT

2. Can you tell us more about how people are affected by disasters? What kinds of mental health concerns are most common?

There is a wide range of reactions people have following disaster. A lot of people are shocked and stunned. Some are angry and scared. There are some people who are profoundly grateful—even if they’ve lost possessions or their home—because they are so relieved that their families are safe.

Children are often fearful and insecure. They need more reassurance from their parents, who may be so distracted with everything they have to deal with after the disaster that it’s hard to focus on the needs of their children.

3. How do you help people cope? What do you teach them about caring for themselves during and after a disaster?

We offer practical support (resource information, food, water, shelter) and brief emotional support by using Psychological First Aid and providing triage to screen for referral needs.

We focus a lot on self-care for those impacted by disaster and for disaster workers. People are often so overwhelmed with the needs around them that basic self-care falls to the bottom of the list.

4. What have your experiences taught you about people and their resilience?

Over and over again I’ve been amazed at the resilience most people have. Rather than throwing up their hands and giving up, they somehow summon up a reserve of strength and resourcefulness that carries them forward. Most people who’ve been through trauma don’t crumble; they survive and do quite well. They take care of themselves and do what needs to be done. It’s inspiring to those of us who witness it.

5. How do you maintain strength and take care of yourself through such exhausting work?

I make sure that I take care of myself and have a full and interesting life as I work as a therapist and disaster mental health volunteer. I try to get good sleep, exercise, and have fun. I place a high priority on being with friends and family, and I make sure I get some down time. I love to get outside and I enjoy a lot of different interests and activities.

By the way, good self-care is really important for all of us who work in the helping professions. Being intimately involved in people’s lives carries some risk, and we need to do all we can to protect ourselves so we can be effective in helping people while not sacrificing our own serenity.

6. How do you balance this responsibility with your regular counseling practice?

I keep my caseload at a reasonable level for me. I am involved in a monthly peer support group of other private practitioners. I do a lot of other things professionally. For example, I just coauthored a workbook called Overcoming Compassion Fatigue: A Practical Resilience Workbook. I do a lot of trainings for PESI/CMI Education. I will be going to Zambia in the fall to do some teaching at the University of Lusaka. I write articles for magazines and newspapers. In short, I find that I enjoy doing therapy a lot more when I balance it with other professional activities.

7. What tips do you have for mental health professionals who might want to get involved in disaster relief?

The most direct way to start is to call your local Red Cross chapter and talk to the mental health contact there. There are other organizations that also do disaster mental health, such as the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology and several religious organizations.

For the Red Cross, volunteers need to have a master’s degree or higher and be fully licensed to practice in their state. You also need to complete several courses that are available online or in person. Once you’ve done this, you can respond to local disasters, such as house fires, shelter operations, weather emergencies, and landslides, or deploy out of town for larger disasters (with a minimum 10-day commitment). You won’t be paid for your time, but travel, food, and lodging are all covered.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Delia

    September 12th, 2014 at 1:50 PM

    So even for those who are trained to deal specifically with these types of situations can sometimes experience difficulty when they are living it themselves.
    It is not just being in the middle of this type of tragedy but living it and seeing it firsthand and seeing how the disaster is affecting everyday people like me and you.
    I am so proud of those who can give so fully and completely of themselves and never take a moment to wonder why they are doing it. They are doing it because this is their calling and at the root of who they are, they have a need to want to help other people.

  • heather

    September 14th, 2014 at 5:15 AM

    As a general rule, we mostly think of the physical things that people need in a crisis situation like this- food, clothing shelter.
    We don’t think about all of the fear and the hurt and the frustration that they are also feeling and how these things also need to be addressed. In many situations there is a shortage of all sorts of items, but many times there also needs to be those who are there counseling and helping people become stable once again from a mental health perspective. Tragedies like the ones we have recently seen can damage people for life, they become so afraid that something like this could happen over and over again, and they will need help not only reestablishing their homes, but also becoming secure in themselves again.

  • Jon

    September 15th, 2014 at 3:58 AM

    It has to be incredibly difficult going somewhere where people have literally lost everythingt hat they own- and you want to do so much to help but then again you need a little break too and you almost feel like it’s selfish to even ask for theat short amount of time alone.

    But you need to remember the thing that you always preach to others, and that is that to be of any use to anyone esle you must forst and foremost care for yourself. That is not being selfish, that is being wise.

    The more that you take a little time out for yourself the better help you will eventually be to other people. If you are tired and wornd down just like they are then that does nothing but add to the misery because then the help is not the substantial help that they honestly could use.

  • sandra

    September 16th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    Most of the time I see the stories on the news and i am amazed at how resilient and ready to rebuild these victims are. They might be distraught right at the very moment but there is something underneath all of that that shows that they are fighters and that they are going to get through this. I am not sure that in the face of some of these disasters that I would have that same type of fortitude but many of them do, and that is what can keep us all going, looking to them for strength and inspiration.

  • Kat

    September 16th, 2014 at 4:18 PM

    I think of the tragedies that you have to see when doing work like this and I honestly don’t think that I could sleep knowing all of the pain and suffering that so many others have to endure when I could be ready to pack up and leave at any time.

    It is times like that that things don’t seem to be quite fair, when you must question why them and not me? What have I done to be so special and to have this wonderful life that I can’t really share but in some small way with others?

  • Nan

    September 17th, 2014 at 3:56 AM

    I would think that the hardest part would be working with the children who have lost everything, especially their sense of security and trying to find the right words and things that will give that back to them.

    Unfortunately for most this will be pain that they live with for a very long time and they may need extensive counseling afterwards to get them past this and to a place where they feel safe again.

  • penjahit k

    December 4th, 2014 at 3:46 AM

    Generally I do not read blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very pressured me to try and do it! Your writing style has amazed me. Thanks, very nice article.

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