Saturday, April 2, 2011

Psychosocial Support in the American Red Cross International Service--An early history

Becoming a volunteer for Disaster Services  of the American National Red Cross, as a Mental Health worker was a dream come through. My mother who had worked with the American Red Cross encouraged my brothers and I to volunteer. We did. But in terms of my growth in the Red Cross, the opportunity to share my skills at a National level was a great honor. Since "Three Mile Island", I have actively responded to over 50 major National Disasters. It wasn't a surprise when I received a call late 1998 from Disaster Services asking my availability for a "short term assignment" in Central America in response to Hurricane Mitch. This assignment would mark the beginning of a  journey that would result in my professional growth as a psychosocial support expert, advocate, and scholar.

There has been great effort  in getting psychosocial support recognized as a viable platform for disaster response, reconstruction and community resilience building in the American Red Cross.

After the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, Dr. Gerald Jacobs, the world expert in disaster mental health was commissioned by the IFRC to develop together with the National Societies a response to address the emotional sequelae of the attacks on the affected population. Upon his return he met with personnel from International Services where he provided a briefing and presented a plan for immediate Disaster Mental Health response.

In 1999, Dr. Gordy Dodge, Alice Willard and a staff member from the IFRC Psychosocial Center in Copenhagen presented the results of an evaluation of a "Psychosocial Support Program" in Kosovo. The focus was of the report was on the psychosocial impact of a livelihood project (providing sewing machines in a community center setting, and informal schooling activities).

Late 1999, Dr. Rachel Cohen and others met to discuss the viability of Disaster Mental Heath in International Services responses. Dr. Cohen, a famous psychiatrist and Red Cross volunteer,  shared her vast experience in crisis intervention and in the States, Central and South America. The focus of this report was care for the worker and survivors.

In the aftermath of the El Salvador earthquake in 2001, Sandy Brady, planned a meeting with invited personnel from previous DMH or PSP responses. The goal of the meeting was to identify strategies to insert psychosocial support into International Services. There was a presentation of the American Red Cross sponsored intervention which included emotional support to all the volunteers that responded to the earthquake and their families, and psychological first aid as a tool for first order intervention in psyhcosocial support.

Late 2001, the Technical Assistance Unit of International Services hired Will Matthews, a veteran of the Psychosocial Support response after the Turkey earthquake. He was tasked with developing "Psychosocial support guidelines" for International Services. He held two meetings one with a group of experts in Geneva, and the other with the delegate and the Psychosocial Support Team from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and NNicaragua. As a result of those meetings he prepared Guidelines and presented them to Senior Management.

The guidelines were shelved shortly thereafter. Senior management concluded that the Psychosocial Support experts couldn't reach an agreement. These conclusion may have been misguided and biased. Each one of the programs reported and developed by International Services in the 1990'2 and early 2000's had elements of psychosocial support--psychological first aid and crisis intervention activities in the early aftermath of a disaster and recovery, Self help activities to increase networking and resilience, informal schooling, training for local staff, and staff care activities--. All were part of what is today known as psychosocial social support for disaster affected people.

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