Disaster Mental Health Volunteers Ease Burden For Others

Television news reports and social media posts show us not only the physical damage caused by natural disasters, but also the psychological suffering. How do you console a family who watched their home burn to the ground? How do you help a grieving mother who lost a child in a flash flood?

Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteers are on the scene to do exactly that. They serve as part of a Red Cross disaster team, responding to nearly 64,000 disasters a year nationwide. Using their advanced training, along with their natural compassion and desire to serve, they listen to those suffering and provide encouragement.

The American Red Cross continuously recruits and trains individuals interested in disaster relief, including training for those who specifically want to help meet the psychological needs of disaster victims. Many of those who volunteer do so because they have been served by the American Red Cross and want to give back.

Tab Ballis, a licensed clinical social worker, and Dr. Allan Chrisman, a psychiatrist and educator, are two longtime Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteers.

Tab Ballis: From Victim to Volunteer

Ballis volunteers with the Cape Fear Area Chapter of the Red Cross because he knows the pain of disasters from personal experience. In 1996, Hurricane Fran slammed into Carolina Beach. Ballis and his family were among the residents evacuated.

Tab Ballis

Tab Ballis

“When we were allowed to return to Carolina Beach I saw three-feet of seawater and sewage in our home. It was extraordinarily hot and humid with an army of mosquitoes and an unbearable smell,” he said.

Ballis was discouraged, but began the cleanup.

“I looked up and saw a Red Cross ERV (emergency response vehicle). Out stepped two retired gentlemen who offered me a bologna sandwich, an apple, chips, and a soft drink. I burst into tears. Their mere presence was so reassuring. They couldn’t take this burden from me, but they gave me hope,” he said.

 

Five years later, Ballis, a practicing mental health therapist, had his chance to provide hope for others experiencing an unspeakable disaster. Days after the 9/11 attacks, he volunteered to join a Red Cross team deployed to New York City. At Ground Zero, in a 16-acre tent, he offered comfort and support to the first responders tasked with recovering human remains.

“I sat with them and drank coffee and ate snacks and listened to whatever they wanted to say. We talked about everything from sports to the reality of the work they were doing,” he explained. “Like the volunteers who had brought me a meal after Hurricane Fran, it was more about their presence than the meal or the conversation.”

Ballis continues to serve the Red Cross. As a part-time faculty member at UNCW’s College of Health and Human Resources, he tells his story to his students and other faculty members in an effort to recruit them as Red Cross mental health volunteers.

Dr. Allan Chrisman: Helping Victims Help Themselves

Dr. Allan Chrisman, a psychiatrist, educator, clinician, administrator and mental health

Allan Chrisman

Allan Chrisman (right) with a fellow Red Cross volunteer. 

volunteer with the Central NC Red Cross Chapter, has been active with the organization since 2005. In addition to helping locally after a tornado in Raleigh and flooding in Chapel Hill, he was deployed to Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Matthew. He was also virtually deployed to assist during Hurricanes Harvey and Maria.

 

 

In Baton Rouge, Chrisman worked for two weeks in the mega shelter set up to assist displaced residents of the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas.

“These people had lost everything and seen family members die,” Chrisman said. “The job of the mental health volunteer is to be compassionate, and to help them realize their own strengths and resilience.”

Chrisman sees it as a privilege for volunteers to assist disaster victims. “It is gratifying on both sides,” he said. “The job is to not overwhelm the victims with an eagerness to help. It’s most important to listen and meet their immediate needs. Helping them understand what they can do for themselves is essential to their overall recovery.”

When helping families, Chrisman stresses the value of respecting the parents in their role as caretakers. “Parents will do more for their children than for themselves. We try to encourage them to stay physically and mentally strong so that they can help their children.”

The role of spirituality is also often underrated and overlooked in disaster situations, according to Chrisman. “People of all faiths and denominations are together, but they share a belief in the greater good and a higher being. As a volunteer, it is important to recognize that bond.”

As an instructor teaching Disaster Mental Health and Psychological First Aid to volunteers, Chrisman stresses that volunteers do not need to have previous experience in mental health or psychology. “Life experience and compassion are valued. Some of the tasks required are very simple, but have a tremendous impact. I encourage people to seriously consider this volunteer role,” he said.

The American Red Cross provides free disaster training for all volunteers. Trainings are both online and in-person depending on the course. To find out more about these training opportunities please contact your local Red Cross office.

 Story by Susan Washburn / American Red Cross

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