“The most important tool we all have is a positive outlook.”

Red Cross disaster mental health expert shares mental health insights for times of isolation, stress, and uncertainty.

When disaster strikes or when a crisis develops we can find ourselves challenged physically, emotionally and mentally.  While we are often very good at taking care of our physical needs, in those hard times we often neglect our mental health. 

And that’s where the American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health team comes in.  These volunteers are highly trained and qualified helpers that can assist with keeping us mentally strong and emotionally stable during hard times. 

Terry Crandall knows all too well the challenges we are all facing with COVID-19 related stay-at-home and quarantine orders.  “Our biggest challenge right now is probably isolation and the ongoing effect of not having our usual social support network.” 

Mr. Crandall leads the Disaster Mental Health team for the Minnesota & Dakotas Region of the Red Cross.  Terry, who is a Licensed Professional Counselor and an Adjunct Professor at the University of South Dakota, tells us that he started volunteering with the Red Cross in 2006. 

Since then he says with a laugh that he has now, ‘drank the Kool-Aid’ in reference to his passion for the Red Cross mission and his commitment to helping people in need of mental health help.  “That is sometimes just a shoulder to lean on and someone to tell their story to.”   

Terry believes that not having access to the people we love like our family and friends leaves most people feeling isolated and without their usual support system.  He says that feeling of isolation can lead to despair when facing this pandemic. 

“People are experiencing very normal emotional and mental reactions to this situation.  They are missing their families and friends, they are worried for kids and their studies.  Kids are missing their friends and social networks like their clubs and teams. There is uncertainty about when, or if, school will be back in session.  Proms and senior events will likely not happen for this class.” 

For almost all of us work has changed.  For those left out of work by this virus there are huge amounts of anxiety about the future.  Money concerns seem to touch everyone.   

Compounding these worries are the stressors that can come from having what may feel like, “just too much family time.”  Terry recommends families keep to a regular schedule and try to stay engaged in activities that are creative and can offer some exercise.   

Terry says that using positive imagery, relaxation techniques, and visualization tools can all help make you more resilient and able to cope in a healthier way.  “The most important tool we all have is a positive outlook.  If we can stay focused on the fact that this isn’t forever and that there will be a much better day to come, we can keep all of us mentally strong.”   

The Red Cross guide to recovering emotionally recommends several tools to help keep a positive outlook. ‘Remind yourself of how you’ve successfully gotten through difficult times in the past. Reach out when you need support, and help others when they need it.’ 

You can get disaster tools, information about recovery, and guides to coping with the stress of the COVID-19 crisis at the Red Cross website.  You can start here: shelteringathome. For more about the emotional stresses and tools that can help  you can visit this guide:  recoveringemotionally.

Are you ready to join the team?  The American Red Cross accomplishes our mission with over 90% volunteers.  We need you.  Your community needs you.  You feel the need to help make this better.  Please consider adding your talents to our team. 

If you are interested in joining the Disaster Mental Health team please see the requirements and opportunities by visiting:  mentalhealthvolunteer

To reach out for free 24/7 counseling or support, contact the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746. 

Story by Ray Guest, Red Cross volunteer

Disaster affects mental health, too

Photo by Daniel Cima/American Red Cross

Disasters can be devastating and extremely stressful for those impacted. Disasters can force people from their homes. For some, disaster will claim everything they own.  The American Red Cross offers these steps for people to take care of their emotional health as well as that of their family members and friends during disaster recovery, and everyday.

How you may be feeling

  • Feel physically and mentally drained
  • Have difficulty making decisions or
  • staying focused on topics
  • Become easily frustrated on a frequent basis
  • Argue more with family and friends
  • Feel tired, sad, numb, lonely or worried
  • Experience changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Most of these reactions are temporary and will go away over time. Try to accept whatever reactions you may have.
  • Look for ways to take one step at a time and focus on taking care of your disaster-related needs and those of your family.

What you can do

  • Take care of your safety. Find a safe place to stay and make sure your physical health needs and those of your family are addressed.
  • Seek medical attention if necessary.
  • Eat healthy.
  • Get some rest.
  • Stay connected with family and friends. Giving and getting support is one of the most important things you can do
  • Be patient with yourself and with those around you.
  • Recognize that everyone is stressed and may need some time to put their feelings and thoughts in order.
  • Set priorities. Tackle tasks in small steps.
  • Gather information about assistance and resources that will help you and your family members meet your disaster-related needs.

Signs you may need additional support

Many people feel better after a few days. Others find that their stress does not go away as quickly as they would like and it influences their relationships with their family, friends and others. If you find yourself or a loved one experiencing some of the feelings and reactions listed below for 2 weeks or longer, this may be a sign that you need to reach out for additional assistance.

  • Crying spells or bursts of anger
  • Difficulty eating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Losing interest in things
  • Increased physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling guilty, helpless or hopeless
  • Avoiding family and friends

Photo by Daniel Cima/American Red Cross

Children and Disasters

Children experience traumatic events differently from adults. Experiencing a disaster can leave children feeling frightened, confused and insecure, particularly if this experience is not their first. Because they can’t always talk about their worries, it sometimes comes out in a child’s behavior. Some may react immediately; others may be fine for weeks or months, and then show troubling behavior. Knowing the signs that are common at different ages can help parents recognize problems and respond accordingly.

They may be more agitated or act out. They may be more clingy or cry often. They may need more attention or reassurance from adults they trust. Scary memories become attached to the sounds, sights and smells that happen at the time of the experience. It’s important to remind children that they are remembering the scary thing that happened; that it’s not happening now.

Here are a few tips for talking to children after a traumatic event:

  • Provide children with opportunities to talk
  • Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have all the answers
  • Allow kids to discuss their fears and concerns
  • Answer questions appropriate for their age.

Additional resources
Contact your local Red Cross Disaster Mental Health or community mental health professional. Please seek immediate help if you or someone you know is feeling that life isn’t worth living or if you are having thoughts of harming yourself or others. You can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.

Disaster Mental Health Supports Red Cross Workers Too

Imagine that you’ve just returned home after being deployed to the American Red Cross Hurricane Sandy disaster relief operation. You worked twelve-hour days for three weeks helping Sandy survivors rebuild their lives. You’re a Red Cross disaster relief worker–most likely you’re a volunteer. You’re exhausted. You’ve seen a lot. Your experiences range from the devastating to the inspiring. You could use a little emotional support, but you’re not sure how or who to ask for it.

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Sandi Lindgren was deployed to the American Red Cross tornado disaster relief operation in Joplin, Missouri, May 2011. Photo provided courtesy of Sandi.

The next thing you know, you receive a call from a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer who’s checking in to see how you’re doing and to assist you in dealing with stress and high impact experiences. The volunteer listens to you, offers support and lets you know that you’re not alone. Sandi Lindgren could be the person who calls.

“Disaster deployments are a special kind of response that I believe calls for increased attention,” Sandi says. “When you return home friends and family usually want to know some of what you’ve experienced, but often they don’t want to know as much as you want to tell.  It’s not because they don’t care – it’s because they don’t understand, and they themselves have had life continue while you were away.  Sometimes it can be helpful to process some of these experiences in a post deployment call, to get support, ideas and sometimes just have someone to listen.”

Sandi–who also deploys to disaster relief operations away from home–most often serves the Red Cross in Minnesota as part of a team of trained and licensed mental health volunteers. Together, the team has made more than one hundred post-deployment calls to Hurricane Sandy relief workers from Minnesota.

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Sandi Lindgren gives–and gets–a hug during the tornado disaster relief operation in Joplin, Missouri, May 2011. Photo provided courtesy of Sandi.

Though it’s a service many people aren’t aware of, this kind of outreach can make a world of difference to those it supports. For example, one volunteer says that the the Disaster Mental Health volunteer who contacted her after her return from Hurricane Sandy “went way beyond what I could ever have expected a volunteer to do in the amount of time she devoted to [my post-deployment needs] and the caring for me and the Red Cross.”

Disaster Mental Health responders worry about the negative stigma sometimes associated with mental health and want volunteers to know that talking with someone is a normal and  healthy way to process a deployment experience. Sandi explains that “The Disaster Mental Health Team and its volunteers don’t approach you and talk to you because we secretly think you’re crazy and in need of an intervention! Sometimes, we just want to chat, or meet new people, or find out what’s going on. I like to remind people that we’re the mental HEALTH team…it’s all about how to be your best, so that you can then support others in the most effective manner.”

Thank you to all of the Disaster Mental Health team volunteers for your compassionate support of our regional volunteers. Your work is truly appreciated.

Story by Lisa Joyslin, Volunteer Resources Director, American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region. Click here to learn more about Red Cross opportunities.

Remembering Sandy: “Minnesota, I got your back”

Red Cross responder Sue Buelow is back from New Jersey where she helped with Superstorm Sandy disaster relief efforts. Below, Sue looks back.

The very beginning was a lot of trying to figure out the response system and getting used to hurry up and wait. But soon after arriving I was assigned to supervising special field teams doing “seek and serve” emotional support and traveling to Moonachie, Newark, Jersey City, Toms River and nearby damaged communities.

Sue Buelow (l) and Lizzie Kampf (r) while responding to Superstorm Sandy disaster relief in New Jersey.
Sue Buelow (l) and Lizzie Kampf (r) while responding to Superstorm Sandy disaster relief in New Jersey.

I learned a few things along the way: 1) speed limit signs are a suggestion, 2) many cities are not on a map, 3) there are few places that allow left turns, 4) be thankful for clean clothes; and 5) they love Minnesotan accents there!

The work was hard emotionally and physically. My first partner had to return home to California for health reasons. Then, for the next 12 days I had the pleasure of partnering with Lizzie Kampf, a new “just-in-time”  disaster mental health responder who was also from the Twin Cities. It felt like we’d known each other a lifetime. I was sad to see Lizzie leave before I finished my final week there. I didn’t know what I’d do without her driving the truck — she took on the persona of a New York cab driver quite naturally.

Lizzie and I went to New Jersey’s upper Barrier Island as the residents returned to see their homes, or absence of, for the first time. The devastation to the townships there was beyond words. The water and sand was 4-5 feet deep and the waves were up to 12 feet high.  The stories of the emergency medical services (EMS) workers and residents who rode out the storm there were frightening. We bonded with these communities and it was not unusual to hear “Hey,  Minnesota….” My last contact with one of the EMS workers that had been struggling was “Minnesota, I got your back.”

Being there when the residents saw their condemned or empty lot of debris was indescribable as they collapsed into my arms, sobbing and needing a “Minnesota hug.” We helped look for mementos in the debris, from small things to stones of a child’s hand and foot prints. We were there for those in shock who couldn’t think to pack up some clothes. Listening to them tell their stories and showing us their homes or pictures was moving.

I certainly have received a great gift from the same people: I believe I have helped them. I am blessed to have had a small part of their lives and in their recovery from this disaster. I will always remember my time spent there.

Sue returned home a few days ago. She is among more than 100 Red Cross disaster relief workers (mostly volunteers) from Minnesota who have responded to Sandy.