I’ve served three two-week stints as a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Volunteer, twice in Manhattan in the weeks following the 9-11 attacks, and once after a hurricane in Louisiana. To qualify as a disaster mental health volunteer for the Red Cross you have to be a licensed mental health professional, and you have to go through Red Cross training. Because of the unique challenges of being a disaster mental health worker, the tour of duty was for two weeks, while most other Red Cross volunteers served for three. The Red Cross is paramilitary in its organization and operations, with a strict chain of command and very specific job descriptions: driver, food service worker, family services worker, logistics and supply worker, etc. To serve in a Red Cross disaster operation is to become part of a well-oiled machine.
Not only can the workdays be long and stressful, but if there are no local hotel or motel rooms available, workers might have to sleep on cots in a big tent or at a shelter. You get one day off a week. While most volunteers have a specific duty station, disaster mental health volunteers are flexible and have the run of the entire operation, doing whatever they can do to be helpful and to keep things running smoothly. We were taught in training that we were not going to be doing counseling, but rather using our clinical judgment and skills as troubleshooters and facilitators: doing interventions when tempers flare, soothing people who’ve been yelled at by an angry client, listening to people who just need to unload, and talking to people about stress management. We would be working with both Red Cross staff and volunteers, and clients (disaster victims), some of whom would be suffering from symptoms of PTSD.
Like most Americans, the events of 9-11 had left me grief-stricken. I was as depressed as I have ever been, feeling like I’d lost family. My wife Maria had already taken the Red Cross courses required for certification as a disaster mental health volunteer. I immediately signed up for the training and within two weeks was certified. We put in our applications for service and were assigned to Manhattan. Airline flights had just resumed, and we were issued some of the first available tickets to JFK. We wouldn’t know where we would be assigned until we in-processed at the Red Cross headquarters for New York City. I’d volunteered so that I wouldn’t have to go on feeling helpless; I would be helping the healing process. It was my therapy, the best way for me to deal with my grief.
One term our trainers used in describing our function within the site operation was “schmoozing.” This meant just walking around the site and getting to know folks, greeting people and chatting with them, asking open-ended questions, letting people know that you’d be there if needed. We wore the same vest that all Red Cross volunteers wear on duty, with nothing to identify us as mental health volunteers; but within a few days at least someone at every duty station knew who the “mental health folks” were, and understood our function.
It was our job to be available where we were needed, and accessible. Sometimes we filled in – making sandwiches or toting trash bags to the curb – to enable volunteers to take a break. We tried to de-fuse tense situations when we could. We asked people, “How’s your day going?” and told duty station managers, “Let me know if I can be of help.” We assessed the morale and did what we could to keep it high. Sometimes volunteers came to us with things like, “You might want to ask Fred how he’s doing today. He just found out his mother’s in the hospital.” Other times a staff member or volunteer might approach one of us, ask “Got a minute?”, and talk for twenty minutes.
Maria and I were assigned to a Red Cross Family Service Center housed in a huge gymnasium/sports center in Greenwich Village – a ten-minute walk from Ground Zero. You could still see and smell the toxic haze from the fallen towers. Manhattan was on edge: recovering from the shock of the 9-11 attacks, and fearful of another attack. The swank hotels were near-empty, so we were assigned a room in a luxury hotel, a block from Carnegie Hall; but we worked fourteen-hour days, and were too exhausted to appreciate the luxuries. Contrary to the stereotype of rude New Yorkers, we found the local folks we encountered to be friendly and helpful. People on the street, seeing our Red Cross i.d. badges (which enabled us to ride the subway for free) made us feel welcome, and many thanked us for “coming to help us out.”
A family service center is where people who’ve lost their residence or their livelihood due to a disaster go, to apply for and receive (if they qualify) vouchers for food, housing, and other necessities. A kitchen on the premises dispensed free hot meals, and there was a free snack bar next to the huge waiting area. Clients were given a number and often had to wait for hours to see a family service worker, who would screen them for eligibility and fill out the requisite forms. Supervised child care was available. The primary task for mental health volunteers was to keep an eye out for potential problems and to schmooze the waiting area, available and accessible to the waiting clients. If things got volatile in the desk-filled basketball court, where family service workers sometimes had to turn down clients who couldn’t establish eligibility, mental health volunteers might be summoned to facilitate the situation.
Clients who clearly needed to talk to someone, or were in evident distress, were told that while we couldn’t “do counseling,” we were mental health professionals and good listeners. Sometimes we were able to answer questions, do brief interventions, or refer people to local agencies and resources, if they needed clinical services. I remember one ad hoc psychoeducational group that Maria and I led for parents, in a room off the waiting area. We heard such things as, “I can’t tell my kids not to be scared. I’m scared!” and “Is it normal for my teenage daughter to still cry every time I leave the apartment?”
More about my experiences as a Red Cross mental health volunteer – including my assignment to a Respite Center at Ground Zero – in my next post.