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The Counseling Connoisseur: Mental health cleanup following a natural disaster

By Cheryl Fisher September 14, 2017

“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

 

As I sit on my patio, warmed by the early autumn sun, I breathe in the alchemy of rosemary, thyme and oregano and a variety of mints — aromas from my herb garden. The squirrels chatter as they scamper across the trapezelike branches of the old maple and majestic oaks that provide me with shade and provide entertainment to a variety of creatures. Blue jays, robins and cardinals flit back and forth, foraging end-of-the-season strawberries. Finches hover overhead just long enough to steal a sunflower seed (or two) from the heads of the long stalks that have faded and now hang low. It is a beautiful September morning.

Yet, several hours away, nature has taken a different turn, spinning up water and winds of 185 mph, decimating lands and destroying lives. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose have created havoc on the Gulf and East Coasts, while fires have engulfed the West. An earthquake has devastated parts of Mexico. In each instance, homes have been lost and families separated. The same Mother Nature that offers me such solace during this early morning has wreaked havoc elsewhere.

As with any traumatic experience, I seek meaning, attempting to make some sense out of these tragedies. I try to identify who is to blame for such suffering and loss. Finding very little peace from my efforts, I turn to what I know best. I dive into my counseling toolbox for guidance and I DO something.

 

1) Volunteer

As mental health professionals, we offer skills that are much needed in cultivating calm and defusing crises. We can help by listening to the narratives of survivors, validating their experiences and providing tools for immediate coping. We can provide basic care and help them reconnect with loved ones. I have been a disaster mental health volunteer for the American Red Cross (redcross.org/take-a-class/disaster-training) for decades. (The American Counseling Association is an official American Red Cross disaster mental health partner organization.) It is a privilege to serve in local and national deployments. Additionally, we can assist local efforts through church or club affiliations. I am a member of the Maryland Responds Medical Corp, and I support the efforts of my faith affiliation.

 

2) Contribute to resource efforts

There have been many times when I have been unable to deploy. This is extremely frustrating because part of my healing is feeling that I have DONE something to help. I have found that numerous organizations accept both supplies and monetary contributions. Participating in these efforts allows me to feel that I have been actively involved in the effort toward recovery.

 

3) Gather with like-minded/like-hearted people

Being in the company of other compassionate advocates can lighten the load. Sharing the emotional burden may not only provide ease but may also promote collaboration and generation of innovative recovery strategies. For example, a group may want to craft a GoFundMe page, create a local fundraiser or organize an event in memory of those who were lost and in honor of the survivors.

 

4) Pray or hold intention

Regardless of one’s faith or belief system, lifting prayer and good intentions on behalf of another is an active service of compassion and kindness. It is (excuse the double negative) “not nothing.” In addition to a faith-based perspective, prayer and intention place the person or people in the forefront of our thoughts, reminding us of our connection with all humanity regardless of nation, culture, ethnicity, creed, age, gender, sexual identification or able-bodiedness.

 

5) Seek help

As advocates and first responders, we are not immune to the effects of tragedies. Viewing hours of social media in anticipation of the storm’s arrival, watching the desperate efforts of firefighters dousing the flaming forests of Washington and Oregon, or seeing the devastation in the Caribbean can take its toll on even the most resilient counselor. Seek professional help to aid in the development of strategies to provide nourishment and sustenance while buffering the abrasive nature of responding to traumatic events.

 

Conclusion

Nature provides us with endless sources of joy, wisdom and companionship. However, there are times — as with any living force — when disaster strikes. Counselors can contribute to the recovery plan in numerous ways that cultivate a sense of unity and community. It is a privilege to serve in times of need.

 

Satellite photo of Hurricane Katrina on August 28, 2005.

 

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer, nature-informed therapy and geek therapy. Contact her at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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