Disaster Mental Health Social Work
Social worker Jack Sarmanian says the personal rewards of being a disaster mental health worker far outweigh the challenges.
The Maine resident was among a group of disaster mental health workers with the American Red Cross deployed to Moore, Okla., in May.
A devastating EF-5 tornado ravaged the surrounding community, resulting in 25 deaths and more than 100 injuries. Survivors of the storm emerged to discover entire neighborhoods flattened and more than 1,000 homes destroyed. A multiple agency resource center was quickly established to help survivors heal from their many losses.
“What was most amazing as I worked with these people — men, women, children of all ethnic backgrounds, faiths, cultures and beliefs — was that they thanked me ‘for being (here) from Maine to help us,’” Sarmanian said.
His deployment lasted 12 days, during which he provided storm victims with encouragement, grief counseling and healing.
“I went to Oklahoma as a Red Cross volunteer and returned home having witnessed humility, caring and strength that I could not have imagined,” said Sarmanian, who also served as a disaster mental health volunteer to victims of tornado-ravaged communities in Minnesota and Missouri. “It’s gratifying and meaningful. You meet tremendous people. It was a privilege for me to be involved.”
Sarmanian is among the thousands of social workers and other mental health professionals who volunteer their special skill sets to aid people through agencies such as the Red Cross.
Another social worker with disaster mental health experience is Susan Pease Banitt, a licensed clinical social worker in Portland, Ore. She served with the Red Cross as a disaster mental health worker after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left thousands of families displaced and in need of relocation across the U.S.
She noted that she liked the work because of the immediacy of need and being able to help people in the moment.
“I’m also very aware that the more help people receive in the aftermath of a terrible event or disaster, the less likely they are to suffer post-traumatic stress,” Pease Banitt said.
She previously worked on a joint project of FEMA and the Department of Mental Health in Boston to provide crisis counseling after a major storm in 1991, known as the “perfect storm.”
“That was a very rewarding and educational experience,” she said. “Such a small amount of help was so deeply appreciated.”
Pease Banitt wrote the book “The Trauma Toolkit: Healing PTSD from the Inside Out,” which won the Silver Nautilus Award in the category of health and healing and Simmons College Alumni Award for Written Work.
Helping people in disaster situations underscored her inspiration for the book, she said.
Pease Banitt’s volunteer experience helped her understand the magnitude of need by victims of sudden disasters.
“I remember a family showing me pictures of flooding where their home had been and seeing some of the drawings of the children involved,” she said. “The logistics involved in recovery were staggering, and it gave me great empathy for families struggling to survive and build a new life.”
Pease Banitt helps other social workers in NASW’s Oregon and Idaho chapters with a 10-week conference call service using her book as a guide.
“It has been a great way to reach out to more rural social workers for CEUs and training,” she said. “The focus of the book and training is about increasing the tools and techniques to help our clients heal from trauma.”
What it takes
Social worker Christie Wrightson is a senior associate for Disaster Mental Health Services at the American Red Cross national headquarters.
She noted that 40 percent of Red Cross volunteer disaster mental health workers are social workers.
“Social workers are an important part of the team because of their holistic approach to mental health and well-being,” Wrightson said.
Disaster mental health service is not a perfect fit for everyone, however.
“We’re not doing therapy in these situations,” Wrightson explained. “We’re supporting people affected by disaster and helping to identify people who may need longer-term treatment so they can be connected to mental health services in the community.”
Valerie Cole, manager of Health Services and Disaster Mental Health at the American Red Cross national headquarters, said social workers have the skill sets that the organization is looking for to serve as disaster mental health workers.
“We have an ongoing need to recruit more mental health care volunteers,” she said. “If you like a fast-paced environment where things can change at an instant, and you are good about initiating contact and being creative and caring, then this is a good fit for you.”
There are 70,000 disasters a year that the Red Cross responds to, Cole said.
“There is always something going on, and we need people willing to work at the local level,” she said. “Those affected by a house fire are in just as much need as those people who are in the headlines.”
Social workers interested in learning how they can help should contact their local Red Cross chapter, which they can find by visiting The American Red Cross website.
The Red Cross offers a Fundamentals of Disaster Mental Health course as part of the requirements to become a disaster mental health volunteer. To volunteer in disaster mental health, social workers must hold a current license to practice independently in the state in which they live.
There are also other volunteer activities available for social workers who are not independently licensed, Wrightson noted.