When a major disaster or emergency situation occurs, the American Red Cross knows that the people affected not only need food and shelter, but also emotional support. They are anxious; they may be stressed or worried at their current situation and what they face in the days and weeks ahead.
When the Red Cross responds to these situations, part of the relief effort includes providing mental health services. Licensed mental health specialists deploy to assist victims with the new reality they are facing, and offer support to Red Cross staff who are often away from home, working long hours with little sleep.
Christine Tebaldi, MSN, RN, PMHNP-BC, is the volunteer lead for the Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts Disaster Mental Health (DMH) team and DMH State Advisor for the Bay State. She responded in April within days after two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, resulting in three people being killed and more than 260 men, women and children seriously injured. Tebaldi recently described her deployment to help people in Boston.
“My role as a disaster mental health volunteer gave me a unique perspective on these events,” she said. “The concept of Red Cross teamwork shone in the wake of the bombing. The Regional Operation Center in Cambridge was up and fully staffed within hours of the bombing. There was a strong local response and much support from volunteers in the Northeast and around the nation. Volunteers were immediately supporting runners as well as the families of the injured and deceased.”
Tebaldi first volunteered for the Red Cross after the tragedy on September 11, 2001. “The events of September 11, 2001 truly inspired me to sign on as a Red Cross volunteer,” she said. “I am a nurse with psychiatric mental health experience, so I was eligible to immediately join the team. I completed two-day mobilization training and was deployed to New York City to provide mental health support in a respite center near Ground Zero. There, I learned the true impact disaster response volunteers can have. I have been volunteering with the Red Cross ever since.”
“As a nurse, clinician and administrator, I am guided by founding mothers such as Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. Both leaders were incredibly strong women who personified the concept of a compassionate presence in the midst of war and suffering. It is this foundation that inspires me and so many others to respond in times of disaster,” Tebaldi related.
“Working with the Red Cross has been a very rewarding and humbling experience,” she continued. “I have had the great fortune of working with many talented and compassionate volunteers and staff. Equally important, I have witnessed the resilience of those affected by disaster.”
Mental Health teams have been part of Red Cross Disaster Services dating back to the early 1990s. Then the goal was to provide support to volunteers on a disaster relief operation. The mission has expanded over the years to meet the types of needs seen during responses like the Oklahoma bombing, events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. As knowledge has increased regarding the psychological impact of traumatic and disaster-related events, the contributions of DMH volunteers have become increasingly important.
Tebaldi explained that most Red Cross chapters or regions have a 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.
“The complex devastation from recent events such as the shootings in Newtown, CT and Aurora, CO and the Boston Marathon bombings has had a significant impact on local communities and has contributed to national outrage and debate,” Tebaldi said. “Other events resulting in widespread destruction, mass casualty and tremendous loss of property include transportation accidents, weather-related events and large-scale forest fires. All these disasters have heightened awareness of the importance of DMH.”
The Red Cross depends on volunteers to fulfill its mission of preventing and alleviating human suffering in the face of emergencies. Volunteers constitute 94 percent of the total Red Cross workforce. There are many ways people can volunteer with the Red Cross, including serving as a disaster mental health worker like Christine Tebaldi if you are a licensed mental health professional. Non-mental health professionals provide valuable emotional support in the form of psychological first aid and are essential to the emotional care services that the Red Cross offers. To find out how you can help, contact your local Red Cross.