During the past year, numerous heartbreaking national and international disasters have filled news reports telling emotional stories and showing heart-wrenching images — from the tsunami in Japan to the tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and the South, to the flooding in Minot, N.D., and beyond.
Many individuals who witness these stories wonder what they can do to help — and some respond, often by making a monetary donation or participating in hands-on volunteer work. But social workers, who are both trained to support those in need as well as feel a strong inherent calling to do so, are even more likely to act on that impulse and volunteer, and their response makes a significant difference.
“As a social worker myself, I’m very proud to say that about 50 percent of the 4,000 disaster mental health volunteers we have based in 600 chapters across the country are social workers,” says Robert Yin, a social worker who is manager of the Disaster Mental Health Program of the National American Red Cross in Washington. “Social workers, with a long history of strengths-based and systems-focused work, are uniquely positioned to increase the resilience of individuals and communities throughout our nation.”
Social worker Mandi Janis, director of Disaster Response at Catholic Charities USA, says their Disaster Operation Program also values social workers and relies heavily upon them to help provide a range of relief and recovery services disaster survivors need.
Despite what may sound like a strong existing cadre of available social work volunteers, both Yin and Janis say the reality is there is a sustained need for dedicated mental health professionals and case managers who can offer volunteer assistance across the disaster continuum of preparedness, response and recovery. Both the National Red Cross and Catholic Charities are recruiting more social workers, offering training opportunities to prepare them to fulfill these important roles.
Beyond the obvious reason of feeing driven to help others, social workers cite other reasons for choosing to volunteer after disaster events.
John D. Weaver is a Nazareth, Pa.-based clinical social worker, crisis intervention consultant, trainer and author of Disasters: Mental Health Interventions. He currently operates Eye of the Storm, a company that provides private mental health consultation and training services. Since 1991, he has served as a volunteer relief worker and instructor with the American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health team, assisting survivors as well as managing volunteers after a wide range of disasters.
When asked why he takes on these challenging roles, and why he believes other social workers also do so, he lists several factors.
“The practical experiences have been wonderfully rich and professionally rewarding. Going out on relief assignments provides me with some much-needed respite from my regular job duties, including managed care, which can be challenging. No other moments in my career have come close to providing me the personal and professional rewards that I have experienced as a Red Cross volunteer,” he says. “For other social workers who are volunteering in disaster relief, many say it rekindles the kind of helping spirit that they have not felt since shortly after graduate school. Some describe their first experience as a calling to their volunteer career.”
The Right Fit?
Moving from consideration about volunteering to contacting an agency to do so can feel like a big step. In determining whether or not it is a fit, Janis believes it is helpful for social workers to consider a number of things, including assessing their motivations before contacting a relief agency or responding to a disaster situation.
“There are lots of good intentions after a disaster, but sometimes those don’t match up with what is needed,” Janis says. “Flexibility and a humble heart are what is needed. In addition, being a disaster mental health volunteer or volunteer case manager requires a time commitment of both the volunteer and the agency supporting them.”
Ken Lee is a retired social worker living in Honolulu who has served as the volunteer Hawaii state disaster mental health lead for the Hawaii chapter of the American Red Cross since 1999. He has volunteered after a number of different disasters -- including at the World Trade Center site shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks —-and says social workers considering disaster mental health volunteering should know that the services they will be asked to provide will be different from those they normally deliver.
“The disaster mental health role does not involve any counseling or therapy. We are there to provide an intervention called ‘psychological first aid’ and emotional support. A lot of it involves empathetic listening and reassurance,” he says. “The people [disaster mental health] workers serve are all those who have been emotionally affected by the disaster, both survivors and responders, such as police and search and rescue, but also other volunteers and Red Cross staff, who need emotional support so they can keep working.”
Yin of the Red Cross says a social worker considering becoming a volunteer should be aware of the potential challenges and rewards.
“A volunteer can expect to have one of the most rewarding experiences of his or her career supporting disaster survivors and other responders,” he says. “However, this must be balanced with the expectation of significant stressors ranging from exposure to the risks of secondary traumatization, to the frustrations that come with the complexities and logistics of disaster response.”
‘The Best Volunteers’
Lee says he strongly believes that social workers make the best disaster mental health volunteers. He notes that he’s seen a fair number of well-intentioned individuals try to participate and find they simply were not up for the challenge.
“Some people simply cannot survive the rigors of working 14- to 16-hour days under challenging conditions,” he says. “However, I never had this experience with social workers. In my experience-based opinion, social workers make the best volunteers because of the broad scope of their training, and their ability to work on micro, mezzo and macro levels.”
Social worker Joni Diamond, a private practitioner and consultant based in Van Nuys, Calif., has served as an American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer since 1993, taking on increasing responsibility within the organization in that time. She now serves as the California NASW/American Red Cross Statewide Council co-founder and co-chair and on the disaster mental health leadership team for the American Red Cross at the national level and for the Los Angeles chapter. She has worked hard to bring the Red Cross and NASW closer together, advocating for more social workers to get involved in disaster relief efforts. Like Lee, she believes they are well suited for the role.
“Social work skills — from clinical to administrative trainings — are pertinent and right ‘on target’ to become a [disaster mental health] volunteer, and help our communities when disaster strikes,” she says.
Insightfulness and Flexibility
Diamond says both flexibility and insightfulness are key when it comes to disaster relief — even if it seems counterintuitive, like providing entertainment to help ease the stress. She believes social workers bring the perfect blend of skills and talents to bear, and offers glimpses into two very different disaster relief volunteer experiences.
“A large apartment complex suddenly went up in fire and smoke, and the residents were moved to a shelter where I was the [disaster mental health] lead,” she says. “Children were everywhere, and I considered what to do. I had a portable radio, so I put on some upbeat music, hooked up with one of the older children and formed a conga line. All faces were drawn to the conga line as everyone clapped to the beat of the music.”
Another disaster where Diamond responded required a completely different approach. In this role, Diamond and her team worked in Los Angeles’ LAX Airport, supporting friends and family of flight passengers who had been traveling to Los Angeles and were killed or were missing during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Before Disaster Strikes
“If you want to help, connect with a relief organization now and take all the training they can give you. The best time to do this is before major disasters strike,” Weaver says. “When the relief organizations are already in the middle of large operations, it is often hard for them to take any resources from other critical work to respond to training requests from potential new volunteers.”
As part of a federal contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Catholic Charities USA is recruiting disaster case managers to be part of a National Team of Disaster Case Managers. National team members participate in free training and may deploy to a disaster-affected area.
Social workers interested in volunteering with the Red Cross have a number of opportunities, ranging from teaching psychological first aid or supporting a local chapter disaster response in their own community, to traveling out of state to volunteer on a 10-14 day assignment for a national disaster relief operation, with travel and meal expenses paid.
For information, go to the Red Cross website and Volunteer, and use the zip code search tool to find the closest opportunities and get started.