Volunteer Opportunities in Disaster Emotional Care
Following major disasters, concerned individuals often reach out to the Disaster Distress Helpline (DDH) seeking volunteer opportunities in providing emotional support to survivors, responders, and others impacted by the event. Christian Burgess, Director of the DDH, a program of SAMHSA administered by Vibrant Emotional Health, offers an overview of how anyone with an interest in disaster emotional care – from mental health professionals to laypersons – can get involved in their community throughout the disaster cycle.
What is “Disaster Emotional Care”?
According to the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) Disaster Emotional Care Points of Consensus, Disaster Emotional Care (DEC) is an umbrella term that covers a range of supportive actions grounded in concepts of resilience and behavioral health. DEC occurs across the disaster continuum, from preparedness to response and recovery, and in relation to both natural and human-caused disasters. While DEC is not psychotherapy nor a substitute for it, the support that DEC providers can offer to people affected by disaster can mitigate and prevent serious psychological consequences of disaster, facilitate referral for those needing higher levels of care, and aid in psychological recovery and a return to adaptive functioning. DEC may be provided by paid staff or volunteers, and is offered in a variety of settings, from emergency shelters to healthcare institutions, and also via crisis contact centers, whether through a national program like the DDH or local hotlines.
When searching for volunteer opportunities in DEC, there are two things to look for: 1) The agency, organization, or institution should offer DEC as a formal part of its scope of services, whether year-round or temporary (i.e., operationalizing DEC services immediately before, during, and/or during the recovery following major disaster events), and 2) the organization should have training, supervision, and other program protocols and standards in place that are informed by relevant research and established best practices specific to and inclusive of DEC.
Volunteer Opportunities in DEC
Fortunately, DEC is increasingly being treated as an essential element of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery, and so most communities in the U.S. now offer an array of avenues in which people from diverse backgrounds and experiences can get involved.
Following are select resources for people seeking volunteer opportunities in DEC:
American Red Cross
- Overview: American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health teams provide disaster mental health interventions that focus on basic care, support, and comfort of individuals experiencing disaster-related stress
- Volunteer Criteria: Licensed Mental Health Professionals; School Psychologists and Counselors; Psychiatric Nurses; Retired Mental Health Professionals; Graduate Students in a Disaster Mental Health-eligible field of study
- Learn more @ https://www.redcross.org/about-us/our-work/disaster-relief/disaster-mental-health.html
Medical Reserve Corps
- Overview: A national network of volunteers, often sponsored by local health departments, engaging communities to strengthen public health, reduce vulnerability, and build resilience
- Volunteer Criteria: Medical and Public Health Professionals and other backgrounds, varies unit-to-unit, and often includes opportunities for mental health professionals and paraprofessionals
- Learn more @ https://aspr.hhs.gov/MRC/Pages/index.aspx
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline- and Disaster Distress Helpline-networked Crisis Centers
- Overview: A network of independently-operated crisis centers located across the U.S. providing 24/7, multi-lingual crisis counseling and emotional support; the DDH, a sub-network of the Lifeline, specializes in supporting individuals and families impacted by disaster year-round, whereas the Lifeline focuses on suicide prevention and crisis intervention and other general behavioral health concerns; however, Lifeline-networked crisis centers located in/serving disaster affected areas may also provide localized DEC support in times of disaster
- Volunteer Criteria: Varies center-to-center; some crisis centers hire only paid PT/FT staff, while others rely on recruiting volunteers (from varied backgrounds and experiences) to keep their services available 24/7/365
- Locate a Lifeline-networked crisis center near you @ https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/our-crisis-centers/ and ask if they have specific volunteer opportunities related to DEC
Vibrant Emotional Health’s Crisis Emotional Care Team (CECT)
- Vibrant’s Crisis Emotional Care Team (CECT) provides just-in-time support and care for those in the acute as well as longer term recovery phases of a natural or human-caused disaster or crisis. The CECT fosters individual and community resiliency by training emotional care providers to work collaboratively with those affected – to build capacity, self-efficacy, and the ability to apply standards of excellence and best practices.
- If you have experience providing emotional or mental health care and would like to become a volunteer emotional care provider with the CECT, learn more @ https://www.vibrant.org/what-we-do/advocacy-policy-education/crisis-emotional-care/
Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster
- Overview: An association of organizations that mitigate and alleviate the impact of disasters, many of which include offering disaster emotional care throughout the disaster cycle (American Red Cross and many crisis centers are also VOADs)
- Volunteer Criteria: Broad, but will vary organization to organization; many VOADs are faith-based and might primarily recruit within their own spiritual communities or houses of worship, while others will accept volunteer applications from a wide range of backgrounds
- Find your state VOAD chapter, who can then point you to a local county, city, or regional chapter for possible volunteer opportunities in disaster emotional care @ https://www.nvoad.org/state-territory-voad/