Healing After Disaster: How Disaster Mental Health Volunteers Help After Hardships

When disaster strikes a community, a state or a country, the Red Cross is there to help pick up the pieces. For outsiders watching, they see the Red Cross t-shirts, the hats, the people on the ground. But what isn’t often captured on camera is the work happening behind the scenes, on the phones, maybe even late at night. It’s the work done by Disaster Mental Health volunteers and staff, helping families cope with the disaster that just rolled through their lives.

The Red Cross of Illinois has approximately 65 Disaster Mental Health volunteers who are all licensed master’s level mental health professionals, ready to help after any disaster. Ron Molick is one of them. After a career in clinical social work then banking, he retired and wanted to continue helping others. That’s when he joined the Red Cross.

Ron Mollick and wife, Carol, in Phoenix (2018)

“It’s gratifying,” Ron says. “It’s something I’ve always done in my life. The Red Cross has given me a vehicle to do that.”

He and his wife (pictured right) split their time between Chicago and Arizona. He helps Red Cross teams in each state. Much of his work with Disaster Mental Health can be done over the phone. He says the DMH is a bridge between the immediate Disaster Action Team and the longer-term recovery process that casework watches over. After a disaster, Disaster Mental health volunteers call clients back near the end of the first 24 hours after they have experienced a disaster, to give the client time to rest and process what happened first.

“When I call, it’s usually 10, 15, 20 minutes,” Ron says. “I’m assessing two things. On one row, the x-axis is stress, and my job is to assess low, medium, high, and to minimize stress. The y-axis is recovery behaviors. Housing plans, shopping for clothes, moving forward. Where are they in terms of the stress that’s debilitating them, and where are they in the recovery behaviors and moving forward after that 24 hours?”

In a large disaster, the Disaster Mental Health team responds and provides counseling and support in person, available at all times of the day or night. Think of disasters like the California wildfires, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, and mass casualty events in Las Vegas and Parkland.

Diana Loch was at each of those. Diana is the Regional Recovery Manager for the Red Cross of Illinois. She’s a clinical social worker, as well, and oversees the Disaster Mental Health program., She also deploys to these disasters. During the coronavirus pandemic, she also manages other disaster mental health programs such as the Virtual Family Assistance Center, helping families who have been impacted by COVID-19. She says the work is rewarding yet challenging.

“A tough part of this job is that my phone number is out there,” Diana says. “People call me about stressors, disconnect, interpersonal issues, whatever it is, so that takes some of it out of me, but at the same time, it’s what I love to do. It’s why I do this job.”

The coronavirus pandemic has made parts of the job more difficult.

“It’s a prolonged, low frequency, but rolling disaster for the entire world,” Ron says. “You’re really just trying to do things to help you cope and connect, and people are just continuing to try and come up with ways to do that.”

But the mission of the Red Cross is what keeps Diana and Ron coming back, the mission to help others and to be models for resilience.

“I feel grateful that in retirement I’ve got something that I want to do, and the longer you do it, the better you get,” Ron says. “Just to have the opportunity, the structure that the Red Cross provides and being a part of the process, the bridge between disaster and recovery. I know that there’s been a positive experience. There’s always a positive reception. They’ve gotten immediate quality service in the worst time of their life.”

“There’s a sense of pride,” Diana says. “There’s representation. I feel this sense of belonging with it. The fundamental principles, I truly identify with. Being a humanitarian and the work we do to support humans, it’s important to me. It motivates me to do what I do.”

If you feel inspired to help on our Disaster Mental Health team, or want to explore our other volunteer opportunities, visit redcross.org/volunteer.

Written by Hannah Allton, Regional Communications Manager

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