From the Frontlines - Brief Counseling in Disaster Response

I typically wake up at 4:00am each day to go to the gym, but on the morning of January 9, 2018, I was already stirring at 3:30am, as I heard a soothing rain beating on my bedroom window. I was nestled warm in bed, when all of a sudden, I heard a loud, chirping sound that startled me! It was an emergency evacuation alert on my cell phone indicating a flash flood warning in an area about five miles away from my home. I quickly switched on the television to see if there was anything broadcast, along with opening Facebook on my phone to see if there was anything posted.

About 15 minutes later, another alert sounded on my phone listing the same location, and it emphasized “mandatory evacuation” this time. I knew something was very serious, as I continued to hear the rain beating down even more loudly on my roof. This was terrible, considering the recent Thomas Fire had burned almost all the local terrain just a few weeks prior.

As the dawn came, a good friend posted a video on Facebook, scared and in shock because her vehicle and others were trapped on a freeway off-ramp in several feet of mud and debris with no immediate rescue. This was the beginning of a call to action that many human services professionals were ethically bound to respond to. Hours and hours passed watching and waiting for rescue update information, and where I could deploy to be of any assistance. I ended up at the Red Cross shelter as an unregistered volunteer, just there for emotional support, as needed.

In the days following, I never realized how valuable my skills would be. The emergency shelter had numerous incoming survivors of the enormous mudslide disaster, some whose homes had been completely swept away, some who had lost family members and friends, many who were evacuated indefinitely due to the imminent dangers of debris, no utilities, and no available food or water resources. The impact was unlike any I had ever experienced as a counselor. My concern was to support as best I could by listening to survivor stories, helping to guide them in problem solving and organizing their thoughts, and supporting them with a sense of regaining some sort of control. This included some survivors in different phases of addiction recovery, of which I knew a few from my work in the field. 

Through my support with these few recovering client’s post-disaster, I am acutely aware that substance abuse and addiction are common among survivors of traumatic natural disasters. Feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, panic or other distress are “treated” through drug and alcohol use. Some with sober time feel they have no choice but to return to self-soothing practices using illicit substances, while others not in recovery may soon become candidates as new clients in our programs.   

 As we are supporting addicts and alcoholics through a natural disaster, we should consider the same interventions as used in the post-disaster shelter environment. Talk therapy, observing verbal cues, and encouraging recovery peer support are all in our knowledge base of recovery support. The DCCC intervention method, recommended in post-disaster situations, can be very helpful in brief therapy:  Step I: Helps the client feel safe in their new environment or circumstance; Step II: Integrates formerly learned skills with new skills to handle the post-disaster situation; and, Step III: Stabilizes and helps to master post-disaster adaptation. Ongoing support is critical, as we know.

Also, very important to note, and this is a whole other topic, is the impact this type of support can have on a helping professional. Secondary trauma is a real condition for counselors, especially in disaster situations. Personal support and self-care should be a high priority as we help our clients and our community heal. 

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