Provide help to volunteers during disasters

Rebecca White, Benedict, Linda F.  |  9/8/2008 12:04:25 AM

News Release Distributed 09/07/08

When disasters happen, dedicated volunteers and professionals swing into action to help those affected by the tragedy. But these helpers also have needs, says LSU AgCenter family and consumer sciences specialist Becky White.

"It’s important to meet the vital needs of the victims of a disaster. But as the weeks pass after such an event, many of the generous professional and volunteer helpers will still be on the front lines," White says. "Unfortunately, during crisis the emotional and physical needs of those who help others are often forgotten."

In some cases, these giving individuals may not even consider their own needs, White says.

"They may seem to be untouched by frustration, fatigue, stress and depression," she says. "And because the circumstances are so drastic, they often think they should stay the course.”

Recovery from such devastating events as Hurricane Gustav takes time, and volunteers may not realize the intense commitments required of them.

"Anxiety for both volunteer and professional helpers is produced by this uncertainty about the future," White says. "Catastrophes produce a wide variety of stress symptoms among those who are helping. They may appear immediately or later after the disaster."

Among the symptoms disaster volunteers may experience are loss of emotional control, fear, guilt, anger, grief, withdrawal, depression, poor concentration, memory problems, poor attention span and disrupted work-sleep-eating patterns.

One of the ways of combating such problems is for disaster helpers to help themselves. White offers these suggestions:

– Realize when a situation or problem should be referred to another helper.

– Be aware of your energy limits and stop when those limits have been reached.

– Set priorities for your time.

– Know your strengths and weaknesses.

– Learn to say no without feeling guilty.

– Take time for pleasure.

– Change the environment periodically for short breaks.

– Seek normalcy where it can be found.

– Communicate with people who understand the endeavor.

– Practice optimism and humor.

But others also can help the helpers, White says.

"If you have a family member or friend who is helping in relief efforts, you can help them," White says. "Keep connected and express appreciation for what they are doing."

Other suggestions for ways you can help those involved in the relief efforts include:

– Encourage them to follow sensible health habits.

– Repeatedly show appreciation for the helper’s work.

– Help them with everyday tasks.

– Invite the helpers to talk about their experiences.

– Help the helper accept help; offer something specific instead of "call me if you need anything."

– Do not rush helpers; their sense of time may be distorted.

– Reassure them that their stress is normal, and remember most people recover well from stress.

– When requested, provide information about the world outside the disaster.

– Respect their privacy.

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Contact: Becky White at (225) 578-3921 or bwhite@agcenter.lsu.edu

Editor: Linda Foster Benedict at (225) 578-2937 or lbenedict@agcenter.lsu.edu

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