National Association of Social Workers and the American Red Cross

Partners in Disaster Mental Health

by: Rita A. Webb, DCSW, LICSW
Senior Staff Associate

June 2000

At the 1996 National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Delegate Assembly, the current Disaster policy statement (NASW, 2000) was adopted and reads: "NASW supports participation in and advocates for programs and policies that service individuals and communities in the wake of disaster" (p. 71).

In 1997 NASW signed a five-year agreement with the American Red Cross to deliver mental health services to the victims of disaster, rescue workers, military personnel and their families, and refugees. This agreement, otherwise referred to as a partnership, has proved to be highly successful and productive. Social workers make up 40 percent, psychologists 22 percent, nurses 14 percent, counselors 18 percent, marriage and family therapists 5 percent, and physicians and psychiatrists 1 percent of the trained American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteers (American Red Cross, 2000).

With the increase in natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, fires, and so forth, the need for volunteers continues to grow. Added to this growth is the expansion of disasters to include terrorist events, for example, school shootings, bombings, and biochemical threats—that is, anthrax. Finally, the American Red Cross has been designated as the agency responsible to address mental health needs and services for the families of airplane crash victims.

The NASW–American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Partnership has been successful because of the social workers who on a chapter, state, county, and community bases have come forward to be trained by the American Red Cross to provide disaster mental health services.

Many of NASW’s chapters, either through the national Mental Health Red Cross Partnership or through their own chapter agreement with the local Red Cross, have recruited social workers and sponsored continuing education in disaster mental health training. Several chapters are included in their state disaster plan and meet with local leaders, the local Red Cross, and other identified mental health professionals to address needs and plans for disasters.

The agreement specifies that

  • NASW will assist the Red Cross in implementing a national preparedness program targeting the mental health needs of Red Cross workers, disaster victims, and military personnel and their families.
  • NASW will help develop a national network of Red Cross trained, licensed, or certified social workers to be mobilized in times of disaster. Social workers who participate in the program will become trained Red Cross volunteers and will follow appropriate disaster services protocols. The social workers also will assist local Red Cross units by leading support groups and aiding in the reunification of military families separated because of military deployment or exercises.

All participating NASW members are required to complete the Red Cross disaster mental health services course.

  • NASW members will be expected to follow Red Cross reporting and documentation procedures except in cases where the procedures conflict with the NASW Code of Ethics.
  • NASW will encourage its chapters to form local disaster services units and coordinate efforts with local Red Cross units. The chapters and Red Cross units may draft their own agreements, which will be reviewed and approved by the national offices of both organizations.
  • NASW will encourage networks with other professional organizations that share an interest in disaster mental health.

  • NASW and the Red Cross will keep the public informed of their cooperative efforts. However, NASW retains the right to conduct its own disaster relief effort.

What works?

In reviewing the partnership agreement and feedback from chapters at NASW’s 2000 Annual Leadership Meeting, the following activities were identified as positive steps:

  • Quarterly discussion and coordination meetings between the National Organizations Partners for Disaster Mental Health representatives and the staff on the American Red Cross. This is an opportunity for information exchange, updates, and problem solving on feedback from the chapters.
  • American Red Cross annual meeting at their national offices for all partner organization liaisons.
  • NASW’s chapter representatives meet with their local disaster mental health partners and the local Red Cross representative to coordinate efforts and plans.
  • Both NASW News and chapter newsletters and papers inform the members and community about social work disaster mental health activities.


National Association of Social Workers. (2000). Disasters. In Social work speaks, National Association of Social Workers policy statements, 2000–2003 (pp. 67–77), Washington, DC: NASW Press.

American Red Cross. (2000, August). Disaster mental health services. Technical Update. Washington, DC: Author.


Web sites

Key Terms

red cross, disasters, international, crisis,

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