Psychologists Integral to Relief in Joplin Disaster

By Nat'l Psychologist Editor
November 14, 2011

Psychologists Integral to Relief in Joplin DisasterThe more than 100 disasters the APA’s Disaster Response Network (DRN) has worked this year range from a small apartment fire to grass fires in Texas, flooding in North Dakota to tornadoes in Massachusetts and Minnesota and of course the disastrous tornado in Joplin, Mo.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the DRN has been busy since the beginning, said Margie Bird, director of the disaster response program. The program has grown from a few volunteers to more than 3,000, with about 50 coordinators in the United States and Canada.

With the help of coordinators and the American Red Cross everybody knows their roles and what they are to do. Coordinators have important roles for a successful program, Bird stressed. “They are a go between the DRN office and field volunteers. Our office also passes information back to coordinators, then on to volunteers and the Red Cross.”

But the Red Cross runs the show. It has a very structured operation. “If you were a psychologist who has training as a volunteer to do disaster mental health work, you would contact the Red Cross and through it you would be assigned to be a responder to a particular disaster operation,” Bird said.

“Psychologist volunteers are willing to help anywhere and with anything,” Bird said. She said she wanted to remind people that this is the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

“The tornado in Joplin was by far the worst disaster we handled this year,” she said. Joplin was smaller than hurricane Katrina but there were more injuries, deaths and destruction from it.

The DRN responds to disasters all the time. Volunteers handle things such as fires and drowning. “There is always something happening someplace but not all are of disaster proportions,” Bird said. While DRN has handled more than 100 disasters so far this year the Red Cross responds to about 72,000 disasters each year.

Burrell Behavioral Health (BBH) in Springfield, Mo., supplied the most volunteers, reported Paul Thomlinson, Ph.D., BBH’s vice president of research and quality assurance. The Missouri Department of Mental Health first called in the BBH. The effort was coordinated on the ground with the Ozark Center, which is a sister center in the state, explained Thomlinson.

The Ozark Center was devastated in the tornado but had no loss of staff. “The vast majority of their facility was obliterated. Their entire mental health system was gone in a moment,” Thomlinson said. They still played an important role in the recovery effort.

There were a great many people who needed follow-up in psychiatric care and required case management services and therapy on a normal day, but none of this was available.

The first thing BBH did was to organize a group of licensed professionals, which Thomlinson focused on to get them organized. He collected people from local health groups, hospitals, private practitioners, local training programs and the University of Missouri. They all wanted to help, he said.

“We had as many as 15 to 20 working at one time. That number dwindled as time went on but over the next six weeks we sent a van load of volunteers down every day to help in the recovery. They would coordinate their efforts with coordinators already working and the Red Cross. Everyone wore an Ozark Center t-shirt because they operated under the organization.”

The Missouri Psychological Association did not have workers on the scene because their disaster team was shut down and it had no leader.

Thomlinson said BBH treated people in several ways: provided counseling, worked with clients who showed up at the Ozark Center seeking help, saw people on site for grief counseling and crisis intervention, briefed all help on psychological first aid and techniques and sent psychiatrists to locations where they could write prescriptions for people who had lost their medications.

“We were treating a lot of people who had never had any mental health problems in the past, but now needed help and support. Some people just needed a pat on the back and be told everything would be okay. What we did for mental health needs ranged all over the map.”

Thomlinson said the damage was unparalleled. The disaster was at least a mile wide and to the horizon all you could see looked like the aftermath of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. “FEMA said they had never seen anything like this, ever.”

Thomlinson said one man chronicled events in a photo album. He showed Thomlinson his neighborhood and all the destruction and told which of his neighbors had died.

“He just kept playing over and over the situation in his mind. That’s why he carried the photo album, to share it with people and describe how he escaped death.” The psychologist said he believed than man was suffering from survival guilt, because nine of his neighbors died and he survived.

Remarkably, there were very few reported cases of full-blown PTSD. When psychologists saw symptoms they made sure the problem was addressed and made follow up resources available.

“BBH was in Joplin for more than six weeks. Our people sent mentally disturbed people to various shelters and centers,” Thomlinson said. The field house at Missouri Southern State University was used as a shelter and cared for as many as 1,200 to 1,500 people. “There was amazing community support. The Convoy of Hope sent water and they are still sending needed materials to the area,” Thomlinson said.

“Our concern was that there was plenty of help in the beginning, but we feared that the numbers would dwindle as time went on. After months, people forget and do not help anymore. The recovery effort is no where near being done,” Thomlinson stressed.

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