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Train, Practice, and Start Responding

So how can you get started if you’re new to this field? As our authors’ repeated mentions of their struggles to manage spontaneous volunteers have made clear, a willingness to help support disaster survivors is not sufficient preparation for the work. It’s essential that even the most experienced mental health professional seek out training specifically in Disaster Mental Health practice before participating in any response. You may be reading this book as part of an academic course on DMH or crisis response, which is an excellent starting point. You can get training through the American Red Cross, various online programs, or through specialized academic programs like the Advanced Certificate in Trauma and Disaster Mental Health at the State University of New York (in affiliation with our organization, the Institute for Disaster Mental Health) or the Harvard Global Mental Health Trauma and Recovery Certificate Program, or possibly through your state or county Office of Mental Health or Emergency Management. You should seize every opportunity to practice your skills by participating in drills and exercises (which are also great places to form those important relationships in advance). Then, for your own well-being and that of survivors, you should start small if possible and under appropriate supervision, working on local disasters like house fires while you build your skills and confidence and become ready to help out in a major disaster.

We also encourage you to accept that disaster response work is not right for everyone at every time. If you have a lot of competing personal and/or professional demands right now, it may not be the best time for you to start responding. However, if there’s one thing we can guarantee it's that there will always be future opportunities to get involved in disaster work, and many people find that barriers to participating either shift naturally over time (for example, as children become old enough to handle your absence during a deployment), or they can be actively overcome with enough preparation (for example, attending trainings and volunteering with your local Red Cross chapter to gain experience on smaller events before tackling a deployment to a major disaster, or by lobbying your employer to create policies that support deployments for those with specialized skills).

Accept Your Limits, and Recognize Your Accomplishments

Finally, an important theme that appeared in many of our case studies was the need to recognize that there may be little you can do other than addressing survivors’ most basic needs or providing a compassionate presence. That can be frustrating, especially for new responders, since we want to do so much more to fix the situation than we ever can. It can also be upsetting not to know the long-term outcome for someone you may have a brief but moving interaction with, or to finish a deployment and leave a community knowing there’s still so much recovery work to be done.

However, many of our authors note that you should not underestimate the power of seemingly small but significant DMH interactions - a point we hope you'll remember in your practice. For example, McGee-Smith writes in Chapter 5 about providing mental health support at a memorial service for the 19 firefighters killed in the Yarnell, Arizona wildfire: “I remember one young man who took a bottle of water from me but refused the tissues. 1 happened to stand next to him as the last alarm bell was rung for each of the firemen and tears were rolling down his face. He looked at me and 1 handed him the tissues. We never spoke, but 1 was there if needed.” That kind of compassionate presence reminds survivors that they’re not alone and that support is there if they need it, and that’s a powerful message for someone whose world feels entirely disrupted. As Bigelow writes in Chapter 7, “most people have inside themselves what they need to heal. You can provide them with a road map, but then you have to have faith in the process.” We need to accept that we'll never be able to do as much to help survivors as we would like, while recognizing the impact our Disaster Mental Health work does have.


Editorial Board (2018). On an Average Day, 96 Americans Die By Firearms. New

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Felix, E.D.. Dowdy, E., & Green, J.G. (2018). University student voices on healing and recovery following tragedy. Psychological Trauma: Theory. Research. Practice, & Policy, 10(1), 76 86.

Grinshteyn, E., & Hemenway, D. (2016). Violent death rates: The United States compared to other high-income OECD countries, 2010. The American Journal of Medicine, 129(3), 266 273.


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