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Blood, Sweat & Tears: Emotional Support Professionals Edition

Red Cross Mental Health Teams Help People Cope During Disaster
Mental and emotional health volunteers play an important role in disaster relief.

While you may typically have only a limited encounter with the American Red Cross, our network of generous donors, volunteers and employees share a mission of preventing and relieving suffering, here at home and around the world through five main pillars of work. While we cover everything from health and safety and blood donations here at home to helping military members and disaster victims both home and abroad, much of it can boil down to one colloquial theme: blood, sweat and tears.

Blood drives and disaster deployments may be some of the most visible Red Cross activities, but the “tears” – dealing with the often heavy emotional and mental affects of an emergency – are often under the radar. Disasters are upsetting experiences for everyone involved. In addition to meeting the physical needs of disaster victims, the Red Cross provides mental health and emotional support in a time of crisis.

VOLUNTEER ROLE IN EMERGENCIES One volunteer explained how the mental health volunteer process works, noting that most Red Cross chapters or regions have a Disaster Mental Health (DMH) team which is made up of independently-licensed master’s level (or higher) mental health professionals including psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, professional clinical counselors, nurses with specialty certification, school psychologists and school counselors. Members of these teams respond at the local level supporting smaller responses like storm-related events and can also be deployed to larger relief operations outside their local area. Within the mission, the DMH team supports not only those directly affected by disaster, but other relief operation volunteers.

Recently, mental health professionals deployed from all over the country to assist with the mudslide in Oso, WA. They staffed Red Cross shelters and cared for the families impacted by the tragedy. In addition, they visited sites like schools and workplaces in the area to support people there.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, the Red Cross provided emotional support and health and spiritual care services at the various community vigils and supported a family assistance center. Nearly 150 disaster workers deployed to provide support and comfort.

For weather-related emergencies with plenty of warning, such as a hurricane, the Red Cross deploys teams and resources to help residents stay safe and mentally prepare for possible upcoming damage. As Hurricane Isaac approached in 2012, the Red Cross prepositioned disaster relief teams and also worked to share information to help those in the path of the storm deal with anxiety and other reactions.

EMOTIONAL RESPONSES TO DISASTERS When we experience a disaster or other stressful life event, we can have a variety of reactions, all of which can be common responses to difficult situations. Red Cross mental health professionals are trained to help people deal with whatever they face, including:

  • Feeling physically and mentally drained
  • Having difficulty making decisions or staying focused on topics
  • Becoming easily frustrated on a more frequent basis
  • Arguing more with family and friends
  • Feeling tired, sad, numb, lonely or worried
  • Experiencing changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Most of these reactions are temporary and will go away over time. Try to accept whatever reactions you may have. Look for ways to take one step at a time and focus on taking care of your disaster-related needs and those of your family.

    The Red Cross has guides available to help take care of your emotional health and to help children cope with disaster.

    For additional resources, contact your local Red Cross DMH team or community mental health professional.

    About the American Red Cross:
    The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.