Faith Community Preparedness Blog

Author: Vivian OrlowskiDecember 5, 20123:12 pm
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What Do You Say to Sandy Survivors?—Top Tips from Psychological First Aid

Can you imagine suddenly losing your home, your car and almost all your other possessions? Can you imagine having your community destroyed, your world turned upside down?

Breezy Point, NY after Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Walt Jennings/FEMA

These are the devastating realities that not only presented enormous material and financial challenges to survivors of Hurricane Sandy, but also resulted in many experiencing emotional trauma. What do you say to survivors in the aftermath of Sandy or other major disasters? While some may require professional counseling, many people can be helped by psychological first aid.

Just a few days before Hurricane Sandy struck, more than 40 members of the faith community, along with regional emergency responders, took part in a Psychological First Aid Workshop sponsored by the Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council (WRHSAC) at St. Ann Church in Lenox.

 Psychological First Aid Workshop in Lenox. Photo by Kim McMann

Organized by the Faith Community Partnering for Emergency Preparedness Project, the event included welcome by Lenox Fire Chief/Emergency Management Director Dan Clifford and keynote talk by Major Thomas Grady, Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office and WRHSAC Chair. Both leaders emphasized the importance of preparing faith community volunteers and other citizen responders to help disaster survivors. See options for free training and involvement in western Massachusetts through the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) or Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

The Rev. Chris Farrand, Director, Emergency Disaster Services of the Salvation Army, Massachusetts Division was the main presenter. He drew on his experience in state and as the Emotional and Spiritual Care Officer in Galveston Texas after Hurricane Ike leveled much of the city in 2009 and in Haiti after the earthquakes resulted in 300,000 people killed and more than a million homeless in 2010.

Chris shared a 5-point framework called O-A-S-I-S. This acronym symbolizes how Psychological First Aid aims to provide an emotional refuge in the midst of an emergency situation. It also provides cues about what works well:

  • Observe first before intervening. Look at how the person is reacting. Don’t expect people to come to you, go to them and be prepared to listen.
  • Approach in a sensitive and respectful way. Introduce yourself. Give your full attention. Speak softly and calmly. Safe comments include: “How can I help?” “Would you like to talk?” “Do you have any questions I can try to answer for you now?
  • Stabilize by promoting calm, but allow venting of rage. Attentive listening—no checking your cell phone or texting. Demonstrate that you care and will try to help. Support essential needs.
  • Interact by providing relevant information, which empowers people to take back control of their own lives. Offer culturally appropriate spiritual care such as prayer (if the person wants). Don’t impose ‘advice’ or proselytize. Don’t make false promises. Triage those who need additional support or referral to counseling professionals.
  • Support by listening to what the individual wants and discussing what can be done. Most people can resolve their problems, but they may need encouragement to do so. You need to believe in their capabilities. If needed, offer suggestions for referrals.

The workshop also included examples of well-meaning statements that are intended to be comforting, but actually increase distress by minimizing what the survivor is experiencing. These pitfalls are dramatized and explained with positive alternatives on the Salvation Army Disaster Radio podcast: “Emotional & Spiritual Care Officer.”

For those that do not have access to in-person emotional and spiritual care, a new resource is as close as the phone: Disaster Distress Helpline.

This is the nation’s first hotline dedicated to providing disaster crisis counseling by trained and caring professionals. The toll-free Helpline operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year round. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746. Spanish speakers can text: Hablamos to the same number. The TTY for those Deaf/Hearing Impaired is: 1-800-846-8517

What experiences have you had in reaching out to disaster survivors? Please share your comments…

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