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Monday, 9 January 2017

The importance of providing psychosocial aid and not just physical aid following a disaster


(Jean-Philippe Tizi, Vice-President, Emergency Management, Canadian Red Cross)

Imagine being ordered to flee your home after a mandatory evacuation has been issued. Or having no time at all to prepare as you hear extreme weather reports of a destructive storm coming your way. This is the reality that communities across the globe are constantly facing as disasters are on the rise, in frequency and in size. 

The thing is, after a disaster occurs, the visible effects are clear. Houses are destroyed, businesses are interrupted, and infrastructure is down. Of course, it’s always known that individuals and families are directly impacted by these events, but often times, those who have not been impacted themselves, may not be aware of the longer-term psychological effects and stress that these situations leave on people.  Emergencies can take a tremendous toll on the emotional and mental well-being of those affected. 

Big or small, disasters impact the entire community. They can strip people of their, homes, personal belongings, and in the most tragic of situations, disasters lead to injury and death. The traumatic experiences within disaster situations have profound consequences on emotional and social functioning for individuals, families, and the entire community.  Recovering from a disaster not only means meeting the physical needs of individuals and communities, but also providing care and support that will help people feel safe, connected and hopeful for their future. This includes universal supports that are available to all, more focused supports for those at risk, and specialized services for those with mental health issues. 

Eventually, responses to large-scale emergencies leave the news headlines, but agencies are continuously working with people for weeks, months and even years after a disaster to ensure they receive the help they need to cope with their emotions, loss, and trauma. Disaster responders play an important part in promoting recovery in safe and effective ways, meaning they can provide meaningful support to individuals, families and communities following a disaster or traumatic event. 

The Red Cross Safety and Wellbeing Program aims to support community priorities through a community resiliency approach to enable recovery at the individual, family and community levels, which will in turn result in the community being better prepared for future adverse events. As a result, communities are empowered to take care of themselves and each other, through community mobilization and strengthening of community relationships and networks.

Following a disaster, people may experience a variety of reactions or feelings that interfere with their ability to cope. These are expected reactions, given the circumstances that people have endured. Providing psychological support in the days or weeks following a disaster assists individuals to manage the impacts of the crisis event. Sometimes mental health and psychosocial impacts are seen months or years following the disaster. Findings from research on the Australian bush fires, in partnership with Australian Red Cross colleagues, demonstrate significant rates of psychological disorders after six years, and highlight the critical support that social connections and networks play in mitigating these effects. 


Take the recent Alberta fires as an example –in the months following the fires, the communities in Wood Buffalo identified an increase in the following:

Calls for support and requests for housing;
Counselling agencies reporting a higher level of intakes;
Interventions relating to self-directed violence such as suicide and self-harm;
Increase in physician services for anxiety, depression and substance abuse. 

Working closely with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo since the onset of the disaster, the Canadian Red Cross has been providing psychosocial support to beneficiaries and on-the-ground responders who have increased stress, and reduced coping following the fires. This includes addressing the immediate well-being of the fire affected population, including considerations for special populations (such as indigenous peoples, the elderly, or newcomers to Canada) who find their ability to cope with additional stress overwhelming. It also includes supporting community capacity and resiliency to address longer-term recovery priorities through coordination of efforts locally and provincially.  

The Red Cross is taking a holistic and collaborative approach to assist those in Fort McMurray and surrounding areas by focusing on:

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT: Ensuring community networks are resilient in addressing psychosocial support, protection and cultural diversity for fire-impacted populations. 

BENEFICIARIES:  By supporting emotional and social functioning of individuals and families impacted by the Alberta fires.

PERSONNEL WELLNESS: Providing Red Cross personnel with appropriate support for their emotional and social well-being, and developing skills to foster resilience both individually and as a team.

Many of you may wonder how the Red Cross provides these services, when there are pre-existing systems in place to address mental health needs within communities.  The Red Cross puts an emphasis on collaboration and non-duplication of services. This means the Red Cross’ personnel dedicated to psychosocial and protection on the ground provide a direct link for referrals to trained professionals within the community and focus on partnering with existing local agencies to help restore their system in order to deliver specialized services. 

Currently, the Red Cross is funding a number of partnerships to address the psychosocial and mental health needs that have arisen following the fires. A few examples include:

Mental health coordinators in schools
French-speaking mental health supports for the Francophone population
Wellness workshops and groups 

In addition to all the current work being done, the Red Cross is always looking ahead to identify future challenges that the community may face. We know and understand that people are still in the early stages of recovery. Recovery is not a linear process, and over time, those impacted may experience disillusionment, where they begin to recognize the reality of what they face.  Once people begin to look ahead, global and domestic experience has shown the Red Cross that we can expect to see an increase in family violence, financial strain, increased use of drugs and alcohol, and a strain on the system due to the expiration of current, short-term support. 

While it’s still too early to see the long term effects on the psychological well-being and mental health of those impacted by the 2016 Alberta Fires, we know that certain events may trigger re-experiencing of negative emotions, such as the one-year anniversary this coming Spring. We must ready ourselves to address issues yet to come, collectively and in partnership with our government at the regional and provincial levels.

In the meantime, the Red Cross’ work will continue. Our Safety and Wellbeing team will provide emotional support to those we see in our offices, make referrals to specialized supports in the community, and continue to collaborate and coordinate with the sector and members of the community to reach their goals of being safe, resilient, and together.  We are proud to be a part of the coordinated response on psychosocial wellbeing and resilience. 





This blog post has been written by Jean-Philippe Tizi, who is Vice President of Emergency Management at the Canadian Red Cross.

Jean-Philippe Tizi is a panelist at CatIQ’s Canadian Catastrophe Conference (C4 2017) on the Societal Impacts session during the conference.

1 comment:

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