Roundup: Disaster response efforts

How psychological associations are mobilizing and supporting their members.

By Hannah Calkins

During the late summer and fall of 2017, state, provincial and territorial psychological associations across the country were compelled to support and mobilize their members following a series of record-breaking hurricanes and attacks. In response to these events, they worked with APA’s Disaster Resource Network (DRN), the American Red Cross and local organizations to provide support for disaster survivors and promote resilience in affected communities.

Texas

Between Hurricane Harvey’s ongoing effects and the deadly mass shooting in Sutherland Springs on Nov. 5, the Texas Psychological Association (TPA) has had a heavy burden to bear.

After Harvey struck, TPA engaged in standard response efforts, such as communicating with members, sharing resources and assisting with the Red Cross’s efforts. But Judith Andrews, PhD, and Rebecca Hamlin, PhD, TPA’s DRN co-chairs, said that they also helped coordinate an unprecedented response tactic: facilitating 161 psychologist volunteers from around the state to deliver pro bono therapy to Harvey survivors, either in person or via telehealth services.

In response to the shooting in Sutherland Springs, TPA served as an immediate source of information and support to its members, supplying them with a list of articles on building resilience, helping children manage distress and other disaster-oriented mental health resources. Andrews also published an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle about recognizing trauma symptoms in yourself and others, drawing on her own experience as a psychologist and a survivor of mass violence.

Florida

In Hurricane Irma’s wake, the Florida Psychological Association (FPA) relied on the Red Cross to coordinate the volunteer response, according to Carolyn Stimel, PhD. Since Irma impacted the entire state, and the Red Cross already had an established system in place, FPA decided it wouldn’t be helpful to set up a separate response.

“One thing that surprised me was how much support our members needed,” said Stimel, who is FPA’s executive director and director of professional affairs. “Our listserv became an invaluable resource for information-sharing and support.”

Puerto Rico

Psychologists and students from the Puerto Rico Psychological Association (PRPA) provided support to survivors in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands after Hurricane Irma struck, said Frances Boulon, PhD, coordinator of PRPA’s Committee on International Relations. 

Then came Hurricane Maria.

Since then, “psychologists have been present at shelters, isolated communities, schools, community centers and the Government Emergency Center, continuing to provide psychological first aid and support for first responders and other employees,” said Boulon. “They have provided services all over Puerto Rico, and on the smaller islands, Vieques and Culebra.”

PRPA has also worked in partnership with the Puerto Rico Association of School Psychologists, as well as other community groups.

U.S. Virgin Islands

Jim Kloss, PhD, and Dara Hamilton, PhD, of the Association of Virgin Islands Psychologists (AVIP) said that AVIP collaborated with the local Department of Health in order to coordinate response efforts within a week of Hurricane Maria.

AVIP members helped debrief first responders, first-line personnel and staff at emergency shelters. They also spoke on radio programs and started a resiliency group for survivors.

Additionally, “Private psychology groups opened and began providing services within days of the storm, despite a complete breakdown in communication and infrastructure,” they said.

Nevada

“I cannot stress how proud and honored I feel to be a part of our ‘little but fierce’ state organization,” said Adrianna Weschler Zimring, PhD, president of the Nevada Psychological Association (NPA), which has just over 200 members.

In the days and weeks that followed the mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 people dead on Oct. 1, NPA took on two targeted efforts: one, providing the community with information about ways to help, and ways to get help; and two, facilitating a system, via the Red Cross, for licensed psychologists (and other providers) to provide services to people impacted by the shooting. They also worked with APA, DRN representatives and local organizations and institutions to share information and coordinate services.

Jordan Soper, PsyD, who is secretary of NPA’s executive board, as well as its federal advocacy coordinator, said that outreach to local English and Spanish media has been critical.

“Right after the attack, we were focused on trying to establish comprehensive, verified, organized services. We wanted to establish support and make sure everyone was physically safe.” Trauma processing will come later, Soper said.

Zimring also acknowledged that there is a long road ahead, both for survivors and for mental health providers.

“Most of our work will be in the months and years to come,” she said. “We must pace ourselves.”

For information and resources on preparing for a disaster or coping in the aftermath, visit APA’s Psychology Help Center.