When it comes to coping with a disaster like the tornadoes that roared through Mississippi, sometimes it can be as simple as a hand on the shoulder or a stuffed animal.
A tornado leaves people bewildered, confused and afraid. Often much of what they have is gone; sometimes friends and family are killed or injured. The future is unknown but the fear is very much known.
They often feel emotionally and physically drained or incapable of making decisions. At times, they get frustrated and angry more easily and argue more with family and friends. A disaster can take away a person’s sense of control and what’s known and comfortable to them.
Most eventually are able to cope but for others, it may take longer and it may be a journey they can’t complete alone. That’s where the American Red Cross can help with its Disaster Mental Health Teams that include psychologists, counselors and other experts.
“These people aren’t ill. What they’re experiencing is a normal reaction to an abnormal event,” said Red Cross volunteer Bill Martin, a retired psychologist from Ocean Springs, MS.
What is said with the counselor stays with the counselor. If a person needs additional assistance, the Red Cross provides the names of local resources that can offer long-term assistance.
The teams go where the people are - to shelters, aid stations or walking through areas where homes, gardens and fences are now mounds of devastation heaped along the curbside.
Dave Daly is a retired counselor from Belleville, IL and one of the team members who has been talking to those in the Pearl, MS area.
“We’re not doing therapy. We’re doing psychological first aid,” he said. “We want to get them to talk. Sometimes they cry and that helps get the emotions out.”
With a disaster everybody is impacted emotionally in some way from those who lost everything to those who escaped unharmed but feel what amounts to survivor’s guilt. Even the first responders can be impacted by what they see and hear.
Alex Weinstein is a retired psychologist from Charlotte, NC who recently walked through a Pearl MS mobile home park where dozens of structures where ripped, tossed and flattened.
He said sometimes it’s not so much what he says, but what he does that helps, like putting a hand on a person’s shoulder.
“That human touch is very emotionally supportive,” he said. “Sometimes then they want to talk.”
At one point, he talked to a resident about her feelings and needs and handed her a flyer about ways to take care of emotional health after a disaster. It offered suggestions such as getting enough rest, eating healthy, staying connected with family and friends and not trying to do too much at one time.
As Alex continued his walkabout, he spotted some youngsters in a vehicle going through the area of toppled and tumbled mobile homes. Walking up to the vehicle with his best grandfather smile, he talked softly to the children and then handed each a stuffed Mickey Mouse toy that the team members hand out.
Children, he said, react much in the way of their parents but most time they aren’t old enough to really understand what happened. For them, cloudy skies can mean another tornado is heading their way, even if it’s not.
The American Red Cross continues to help Mississippi residents recovering from the storm. Those who would like to help people affected by disasters like tornadoes, floods and other crisis can make a donation to American Red Cross Disaster Relief. People can donate by visiting www.redcross.org or calling 1-800-RED CROSS. These donations enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small.