This article was originally posted on A Billion Plus Change by Headwaters Relief Organization Posted: April 11, 2014
The presence of a psychologist can make a difference to both people in the communities served and to other responders who can easily be overwhelmed with their workloads or challenged by the circumstances in which they are working.
Interdisciplinary first response teams that include psychologists are becoming more prevalent in the field as responders are faced with highly complex, catastrophic losses that take significant physical and psychological tolls. On an international level, organizations such as World Vision and ACTS World Relief are requesting that psychologists play a role in the first weeks after a disaster. On a trip to Tacloban, one of the area’s most devastated by the typhoon in the Philippines, Headwaters volunteers served on an interdisciplinary medical team that included doctors, nurses, our mental health professionals, an interpreter and a security detail who were asked to move from village to village, triaging and treating people who were sick or wounded. We arrived at the decimated airport after the tsunami, exhausted after four flights. Our luggage was placed on the tarmac, loaded in transports, and our team headed into the disaster zone. There was ample evidence of death, but the living were now struggling with health issues and a lack of basic services.
As the doctors set up the medical tents, the villagers would begin to line up. Each of the two to three doctors on the team could expect to see up to 150 people in an afternoon. One of our roles was to move through the line, visually assessing or talking to people through an interpreter to help triage efforts to move the sickest, frailest or most gravely wounded people forward. Many had respiratory issues. Some brightened considerably with a warm touch and smile. Others, anxious to relate their stories, focused our attention on the importance of listening. We also helped the doctors to dispense the medicines that had been prescribed. While basic needs are paramount at this time, progress can be made in processing the tragedy mentally and emotionally, which physical needs are being addressed.
Many family groups included children. Many of the children had learned some English in school, and had access to radio and television. They knew all of the songs of Justin Bieber, and loved traditional and pop Christmas music! We would sing songs together, and take turns teaching each other new things. We told stories like Cinderella and Snow White and other stories focused on people overcoming obstacles, and opened the door for the children to express their losses and problem solve as a group. They taught us their dance moves and we taught them some of ours. We held babies while their parents were being seen by the doctors, and brought laughter and joy to the older children who needed outlets for both their pain and energy. These activities were obviously calming to everyone gathered at the site.
At the end of the long days we met with the doctors and nurses who were part of the teams. A lot of the first-time responders had never been out in the field before and needed help coping with the conditions they had seen, including the magnitude of the loss of life. Many veteran responders have learned to be flexible, are frequently confronted with a lack of basic medical equipment and with serious conditions that are easily treated at home. The sheer immensity of the need, coupled with the lack of resources, makes their work in these teams challenging.
We would all retire to our sparse accommodations to get whatever rest we could. We were lucky to have some electricity, but slept on mats on a filthy floor, used mosquito netting and bedbug spray to keep down the pests, and had communal bathroom facilities. We had to bring in most of the food we ate. Conditions were challenging, but we had prepared accordingly. The close accommodations do put you in contact with inspiring people. I spent time with teams from Germany, Switzerland and Australia.
There is a limited role for traditional face-to-face psychology in these types of settings, but our skills as psychologists and as active listener were put to use in meaningful ways. We had an interpreter during this tour, but the lack of a common language would not have mattered. Joy, confusion and distress can be assessed through body language, and we have always found that compassion shines through language barriers.