The American Red Cross is known for helping people meet basic needs after disasters large and small, from home fires to regional floods and tornados. We’ve all seen pictures of the Red Cross staff person throwing a blanket over someone’s shoulders. That blanket is physical care and also emotional support that Red Cross volunteers responding to a disaster routinely offer.
Red Cross Disaster Mental Health (DMH) workers take that emotional care a step further. It’s a role that has commonalities with the family therapist, school counselor or other mental health professional we’re familiar with. DMH workers are licensed professionals. They have at least a master’s degree in social work, psychology or a related field. They follow the same professional standards as others in their field.
Emily Aloto, the regional Red Cross Direct Services Manager, remembers a single mother with several children who was feeling overwhelmed by what had happened to her and her family. “She just needed someone to be there for her to talk to her,” Emily said.
“Making sure they (people who’ve been affected by a disaster) have emotional support to move them through recovery is key.”
Unlike most mental health professionals, DMH workers must be able to take stock of a disaster scene quickly, whether it’s a family huddled outside their burning home or people living in a shelter after a flood. These Red Cross staff members quickly assess the reaction, risk factors and resilience of those affected by the disaster.
DMH workers may spend just five minutes with an individual but, because of their special training in Disaster Mental Health, are able to provide high-quality support that helps her recover from the event. While other mental health professionals develop long-term therapeutic relationships with their clients, those working in Disaster Mental Health typically meet no more than three times with someone affected by a disaster.
Marie Van Stee is one of those who provides this crisis support. In her “day job,” Marie works with adolescents in a hospital setting. As a DMH worker, she goes out “in the field” and also and makes phone calls offering emotional support to people other Red Cross workers think might be able to use her services.
“I’ve always wanted to be with the Red Cross,” she says, and now that her children are grown, she is able to do so.
One function of DMH workers is to make referrals to community mental health professionals whose role is to provide long-term mental health care. Red Cross DMH workers also provide DMH services to Red Cross staff who are responding to a disaster.
DMH workers are members of the Disaster Action Team and, as with other members of the team, they know that human beings are resilient. They encourage those affected by disaster to identify and draw on their own personal and community resources.
The Red Cross Disaster Services department needs more mental health professionals like Marie Stee, people who can either make phone calls or go out into the field.
“Let us know what you’re interested in and we will find you a fit,” says Emily Aloto.
The Red Cross invites the public to be a part of the lifesaving work it does and to sign up to volunteer. People can go to redcross.org to learn more about volunteer opportunities and how to submit a volunteer application.