Pamela Rupert, White, Rebecca E., Merrill, Thomas A.
When disasters happen, dedicated volunteers and professionals swing into action to help those affected by the tragedy. But who takes care of the "helpers"?
That question needs to be asked in the weeks following a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, according to LSU AgCenter specialist Dr. 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 explains. "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 ‘muster’ through.
"But helpers need assistance, too!"
Although recovery from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina have begun, volunteers across the state and in other areas still haven’t seen an end to some of the intense commitments required of them.
"Anxiety for both volunteer and professional helpers is produced by this uncertainty about the future," White says, adding, "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 and others 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, according to White. "That can be difficult for some," she says, but disaster helpers need to:
–Realize when a situation or problem should be referred to another helper.
–Be aware of their energy limits and stop when those limits have been reached.
–Prioritize their time.
–Know their strengths and weaknesses.
–Learn to say no without feeling guilty.
–Take time for pleasure.
–Change their environment by at least taking short breaks.
–Seek normality 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," the LSU AgCenter expert says. "Just keeping connected to others and hearing others express appreciation for what they are doing can help."
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.
"In order for our communities to recover after this catastropy, the load must be shared," White says. "Let’s all be sure to help where we can – but to also take care of ourselves."
Some suggestions adapted from material developed by Elaine M. Johannes of Kansas State University.