Prepare Now if You Want to Volunteer at a Disaster Site

When disaster strikes, it’s natural for many psychologists to want to use their skills and experience to help people and their communities recover. We are, after all, in the profession of helping others. So it’s probably not a surprise that after a disaster happens – whether natural or human-made – psychologists often contact APA asking how they can help.

But the aftermath of a disaster isn’t always the best time to arrive on the scene and jump in. Just as communities and people should prepare, so should psychologists who want to respond to disaster sites.

APA’s Disaster Response Network collaborates with local chapters and the national office of the American Red Cross to help place specially trained psychologists at disaster sites. Two particular opportunities at this year’s convention will help psychologists learn more about disaster response, how psychologists can help and provide the training needed to work in disaster mental health.

Disaster Ethics

As a former Disaster Response Network volunteer while practicing in Mississippi (and responding to Hurricane Katrina), I have firsthand experience with the challenges of disaster response.

One of the challenges for psychologists responding to disasters is keeping ethical principles at the fore while performing disaster mental health work. Privacy and confidentiality are limited, and psychologists are often working alongside volunteers to whom they are also providing support.

CIMG0109While we are psychologists at the scene, we are not there to provide psychotherapy.

At “Disaster Ethics: The Road Beyond Good Intentions,” the challenges and concerns of working at disaster sites will be discussed in detail by psychologists who volunteer with the Disaster Response Network and by Stephen Behnke, director of the APA Ethics Office. The skill-building session will address ethical dilemmas and decision-making and share real-life examples of ethical challenges from psychologists who have responded to local and large-scale disasters.

If you want to learn more about the challenges of disaster work, this session – worth 2 CE credits — is a great place to start, 10-11:50 a.m., Friday, in Room 145B.

American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Fundamentals

For the past few conventions, the Disaster Response Network has hosted Disaster Mental Health Fundamentals training, a course required by the American Red Cross before a licensed mental health professional can volunteer as a disaster mental health worker. This year, the training is on Saturday morning. Registration is now closed, but any licensed psychologist can take the training in person through a Red Cross local chapter or via webinar. You can take a brief introductory course online to see whether you might be interested in the fundamentals training. Contact your local Red Cross chapter for more information.

16920012Disaster mental health work is challenging  — it can be emotionally and physically taxing, and self-care becomes very important. But the benefits are tremendous and it is a great way to give back to your profession and community. The key is to be sufficiently prepared before the disaster strikes.

This entry was posted in Disasters by Katherine Nordal, PhD. Bookmark the permalink.

About Katherine Nordal, PhD

I am the executive director of professional practice at the American Psychological Association. But before coming to APA in 2008, I was a practicing psychologist in Vicksburg, Mississippi, for more than 30 years. I treated adults, children, teens and families in a number of areas, including stress-related disorders. My other interests include learning, behavioral and emotional disorders in children and teens, neuropsychological assessment, brain injury in children and adults, and civil forensic psychology.

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