Story: Dispensing Hope and Courage

Story and photo by Dick McGee

The broad distribution of cleaning supplies, personal comfort items, food, and water at the bulk distribution sites set up throughout New York and New Jersey is a major undertaking for the American Red Cross in its effort to bring relief to disaster victims, and start them on the long road to restoring their lives. But what happens when people are left feeling so devastated that they have difficulty even getting started on the monumental clean-up job they face? Such feelings are commonplace after a major crisis in our lives, especially one wrought by the uncontrolled power of Mother Nature.

That’s why a Red Cross Disaster Relief Operation always includes Mental Health services. Highly trained mental health workers, licensed by the state government where they practice, provide a service of immense value to disaster victims. Volunteers working at the Bulk Distribution site in Lindenhurst, Long Island, NY Sunday found several opportunities to offer such services to people who gratefully welcomed a chance to ventilate pent-up feelings and stresses.

Anxiety and depression are normal reactions to a disaster, and not signs of an emotional disorder. Amy Belfiore, a professional school counselor from Deer Park, Long Island, NY discussed her ten years experience in the mental health field. She recalled that nearly fifty years ago a Boston psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital promoted to the idea of crisis counseling by sending public health nurses out to console and comfort mothers of premature infants. From those seeds, the attitudes and techniques in use today by crisis intervention workers have spread into, and become part of the Red Cross.

“Most people have the idea that mental health care is what happens only in a doctor’s office, one hour per week, by appointment,” Amy said.”That was the way it used to be,” she continued. ”But now, trained people who care, are able to go directly to people, and offer support in the middle of the disaster area.” In fact, mental health workers believe that the closer the help is given, in both time and place, to where the problem occurred, the more effective that help is.

As the cars drove up to the loading area of the Lindenhurst distribution center on Sunday, the volunteer who directed the traffic flow was the first to sense when either the driver or a passenger was feeling distraught. Amy positioned herself near the initial contact point, and when she also observed a person who appeared to be in need of special support, she made contact and offered a place where a brief, supportive conversation could be held. One woman reported feeling greatly relieved after discussing her reactions to losing all the pictures and other memorabilia which connected her to the life of a deceased brother. Another wanted to ventilate about having to face the recovery issues largely on her own because the disaster required her husband to work unusually long hours.

”Unfortunately, we will never know for sure how any one of these situations turn out, or if the people ever followed up on the suggestions I made,” Amy noted. “But at least we know they left here more relaxed, and with a glimmer of renewed hope and confidence that they can overcome Superstorn Sandy, because this, too, will pass away.”

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