U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Disaster relief work can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help people in need of your expertise and assistance. It is a uniquely rewarding way to use the skills you have developed as a medical worker, soldier, aid worker, or trained volunteer. However, disaster relief work also can cause stress, which may not end when you complete your assignment. You can reduce this stress by taking care of yourself after your return home and by seeking help if you have trouble readjusting to your usual routine.
What to expect
Disasters are difficult to understand. When they occur, people often ask: Why did this happen? This question can be especially unsettling for disaster relief workers who have seen the effects and been involved with the catastrophe firsthand. After returning home, it may help to keep in mind the following tips from SAMHSA's National Mental Health Information Center on understanding the effects of a disaster:
Your physical and emotional health
SAMHSA's National Mental Health Information Center recommends seeking
help if you have any of the following ongoing symptoms upon your return home:
Disaster work is challenging physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. You may have worked for long hours in areas that were overcrowded or had poor sanitation or other health risks. You may have witnessed scenes of great pain and loss of human life. You may have had to cope with shortages of basic supplies or resources that most people take for granted. All of these experiences may have had a cumulative effect on your physical and emotional health that can continue after you return home.
Some of the above symptoms may be signs of ongoing stress. They also may be signs of an illness or serious physical condition. For example, flu-like symptoms can be a sign of meningitis, a potentially fatal disease that can spread quickly in crowded areas such as refugee camps. Don't take chances with your health. Call a doctor if you develop unexplained physical symptoms after returning from a place where you faced an increased risk of illness.
Taking care of yourself
After being away and taking care of others, you probably will need to spend some time focusing on and taking care of yourself.
Talking about your experience
Returning home will be easier if you can talk with people you trust about your feelings and experiences. It is important to share not just difficult emotions-such as grief, disbelief, or frustration-but also the joy you felt when helping those in need.
Most people are able to adjust to returning home after disaster relief work, though the time required can vary greatly from person to person. If stress reactions persist, or interfere with your personal or work life following your relief assignment, it is important to seek professional help.
The following ongoing signs and symptoms may be an indication of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):
A person experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder may experience a few or many of the above symptoms. If responses and reactions like these continue for months, or if they interfere in your daily life to any extent, it is important to seek professional help immediately. Talking with a trained professional can help you recover from trauma and feel better faster. Your employee assistance program (EAP) or employee resource program can help you get the confidential, professional assistance you need.
Even if you don't have signs of PTSD, it is important to get help if you are having trouble with your work or relationships, or if you are still feeling low after your disaster relief coworkers have moved on. You might begin by talking to a professional you trust, such as your doctor or a chaplain or other clergy member. Again, your EAP or employee resource program can help you get professional assistance.
After returning, take some time to think about the valuable contribution you have made to many who needed your help. The American Red Cross encourages disaster workers to remember that they have given a gift of themselves - their time and caring - to those who have experienced a catastrophe. Eventually, you may do more disaster relief work, or you may move on to completely different tasks. Either way, if you take good care of yourself and get help when you need it, you will continue to keep making valuable and much needed contributions to others.
Written with the help of Marjorie Dyan Hirsch, D.C.S.W., C.E.A.P., C.A.S.A.C., B.C.E.T.S. Ms. Hirsch is an organizational crisis management specialist, corporate consultant, executive coach, and trainer. Ms. Hirsch provided debriefings for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during the Oklahoma City bombing and for many major corporations after both World Trade Center crises. She is CEO of The Full Spectrum in New York City. Parts of this article were adapted from After a Disaster: Self-Care Tips for Dealing with Stress, a publication of SAMHSA's National Mental Health Information Center.
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