Emergency Response: Coping With Crisis and Disaster Relief Work

My second counseling job out of college was with Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension as what started out to be a phone information and referral
counselor for  farm families having trouble staying afloat. I went into this job being very excited to help because I spent summers on my relatives’ dairy farms, and thought I had some inkling as to what it was like to work and live on a dairy farm. This job, however, quickly changed from info and referral to crisis counseling in a hurry. We phone counselors dealt with distraught, suicidal people, families impacted by incest, people running out of food, having the electricity shut off (a disaster for a dairy farm), imminent bankruptcy, you name it. I had the night shift for 2.5 years, and I was pretty much flying solo, working 2 phones at once, sometimes with a client on one line and the county sheriff on the other. I am glad I had the chance to work in this job, but the stress was hard. When that phone rang, you never knew what the problem was going to be.

The same kinds of stress are faced by disaster relief and humanitarian aid  workers. They have an idea of what the problems are, but there are always surprises, and the solutions that are applied do not always solve the problems. These workers are also often still out in the field working when the disaster or humanitarian needs disappear from the headlines.

Here are some things that may help if you provide crisis, disaster or emergency humanitarian relief:

*Talk to someone. Build a support system of family, friends and co-workers. Especially co-workers, because they understand what you are experiencing.

*Get some down time for yourself to relax during and after your work. Make sure you are eating and sleeping.

*Remind yourself of your accomplishments, strengths and skills. Helping someone through an ordeal is a huge accomplishment, and it takes trained, emotionally strong people to do this.

*Get out and participate in other activities. Do not hide at home.

If you feel isolated, are having trouble eating or sleeping, are anxious and using alcohol, food or drugs to ease your fears, are sick all the time or are depressed, talk with a counselor. Many agencies who provide disaster relief have counseling programs set up to help their workers. Counselors also participate in co-counseling programs where they are paired with other counselors to talk out their feelings about what they do. Helping others should not be allowed to have a prolonged negative impact on your life.


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