Counseling Today, Features

When disaster strikes

Angela Kennedy May 14, 2006

Recognizing the importance of disaster behavioral health preparedness, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration convened a national summit in New Orleans on May 22-24 to help states and territories assess the progress being made on disaster behavioral health plans and address existing barriers in the planning process. Fifty-four states and U.S. territories sent governor-appointed teams of mental health, substance abuse and related health and human services professionals to participate in the Spirit of Recovery National Summit: Lessons Learned After the Hurricane. As part of the summit, the teams collaborated with national mental health organizations, including the American Counseling Association.

At the summit, ACA was recognized for sending 20 percent of the total number of deployed mental heath counselors to the Gulf Coast after the devastating hurricanes of 2005, demonstrating that ACA members heard the call for help and took action.

“The response from ACA was simply overwhelming, and not only did your organization respond during the early stages but also (continues to) provide ongoing support,” said Edna Davis-Brown, manager of the SAMHSA Katrina Assistance Project with Westover Consultants. “ACA has helped us so much. We are quite thankful for all that ACA has done.” Davis-Brown noted that as of last month, ACA had helped increase SAMHSA’s mental health crisis responder database by more than 1,000 counselors.

“We were really honored to be able to participate in the (crisis response),” said ACA Executive Director Richard Yep. “When we were informed about providing professional counselors, we were more than willing to assist, given our members’ past history and their willingness to volunteer in times of great need. We were asked to find 100 professional counselors who could serve in the Gulf region. We dropped everything and moved this to the top of our priority list. We activated our listserv, posted an alert with information on our website and within 72 hours identified, screened and submitted the names of 178 professional counselors who were willing to serve.”

Over the course of the weekend, summit attendees interacted in a peer-to-peer environment to review lessons learned from hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Participants identified opportunities for consolidating the ongoing response to behavioral health issues and strategized all-hazards preparedness efforts for future disasters. Presentations and workshops structured to promote intensive analysis and knowledge-sharing focused on topics such as substance abuse and mental health treatment, pandemic influenza and other public health emergencies, the needs of high-risk populations, evacuation and displacement, emergency response centers, partnerships and coalition-building, public safety workers, disaster-related suicide, access to opiod treatment, psychotropic medications, methadone treatment and regional collaboration.

Also attending the summit were more than 100 of the first responders to the disaster, as well as several survivors. Many of the first responders and survivors gave personal accounts of the events following the hurricane crisis.

Yep participated in a panel discussion with other national association representatives to address what went well in preparing for and responding to the hurricanes and what needs to be improved. Yep shared several points with the panelists pertaining to ACA’s hurricane-response efforts. He also shared feedback that ACA received from its members on what could have worked better as well as recommendations for addressing those issues. Among the important points:

  • Success: ACA was able to work quickly to locate counselors willing to deploy.
  • Success: SAMHSA recognized the need for professional counselors in a disaster situation.
  • Success: ACA proved that it could be relied on in a time of national need to provide qualified mental health professionals.
  • Issue: Not all mental health workers were adequately trained in disaster mental health relief and were lacking skills in trauma/crisis counseling.
  • Issue: Many counselors assumed their only role would be providing mental health services.
  • Recommendation: Establish a national alert system with trained disaster crisis professionals “in the pipeline” who are ready to respond at a moment’s notice, similar to a volunteer fire department.
  • Recommendation: Provide more disaster mental health training to orient professionals and provide clear expectations.
  • Recommendation: Make an online learning/discussion community available to those who have been deployed.
  • Recommendation: Improve cultural sensitivity of the counselors and others who are deployed.

“In a crisis situation, you really have to be flexible and open to what you are assigned to do,” Yep said. “For example, the most important thing might not be sitting there and doing some kind of crisis intervention. It may be that they need someone to go to Wal-Mart and get more water. In many cases, it’s not a traditional counseling session given everything that is going on.”

SAMHSA also presented recognition awards at the Spirit of Recovery summit to local and national companies, organizations and individuals who served valiantly and faithfully to assist those affected by the 2005 hurricanes. Among those honored was ACA member Irene McIntosh, an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of South Alabama. She was recognized for serving as a team leader in assisting D’Iberville, Miss., with its hurricane response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina. McIntosh, along with the recovery team of the D’Iberville Volunteer Foundation, has worked many hours to help rebuild the city in the aftermath of Katrina.

McIntosh has used her counseling skills to help hurricane victims get their lives back in order and to help volunteers deal with the pain they witness as they assist with the rehabilitation and recovery efforts. McIntosh also helped establish a soup kitchen for first responders, citizens and volunteers in a concession stand at the D’Iberville Recreation Complex and a free medical clinic in a nearby grocery story. She has continued to work on the disaster recovery project while teaching a full load at South Alabama and conducting research for the Monroe County Public School System.

Cirecie Olatunji, president-elect of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, was invited to present at the summit on her personal experiences as a deployed mental health provider to the Gulf Coast region. She spent her winter holiday in New Orleans counseling first responders and municipal employees as well as their spouses and children. In her presentation, she pointed out two areas in which efforts must be improved for disaster mental health preparedness and response efforts to truly move forward: increased collaboration among mental health professionals in interdisciplinary groups and increased cultural sensitivity among crisis intervention workers.

“AMCD is putting together a structured initiative so we can help SAMHSA and other agencies to deal with issues of cultural competency and disaster response,” she said. “It will be how to prepare, train and support mental health professionals who are responding to disasters.” She added that AMCD plans to present the training in August at the American Psychological Association Convention in New Orleans and at the ACA Annual Convention in Detroit next year.

“I’m really proud of our licensed professional counselors who agreed to be deployed through ACA’s call to action,” Yep said. “What we heard overwhelmingly was a very positive response from those they served and from the counselors themselves. We appreciate Westover and SAMHSA for including us and acknowledging the fact that professional counselors can play such an important role in dealing with disaster response.”

Several of the PowerPoint presentations from the Spirit of Recovery National Summit are currently available for download at www.spiritofrecoverysummit.com/presentations.htm.