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Institute Staff

Institute in the Field: Providing Disaster Mental Health Services to People Affected by Hurricane Harvey

September 13, 2017

The Institute’s Director of Substance Abuse Prevention, Thomas McCarry, LMHC, volunteered with the Red Cross to provide mental health services to people affected by Hurricane Harvey. He volunteered in shelters from August 31st -September 9th. Read more about his experience below.


How did you get involved with the Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Services?

I have been interested in emergency preparedness and response for quite some time now. While I lived in NYC I was involved with the Medical Reserve Corps. It’s a local response team that can be called in the case of any local emergency or disaster. I volunteered during Super storm Sandy.

I took a disaster mental health training offered by Red Cross and became a volunteer a month ago. When I saw that this hurricane was going to be a significant event, I wanted to help. It was amazing to know my supervisor and organization was in support of me doing so.”

Tell us what it was like when you arrived in Texas.

Depending on when you arrived and what they needed at the moment that is what you do. I was flown into Austin, Texas.  Since I got there later in the day, I was sent to the Red Cross shelter in Austin. There were about 850 people in the Austin area that were in shelters due to damaging floods.

I was paired with a more senior volunteer and one day we visited two shelters in small towns on the outskirts of Austin – La Grange and Giddings. Both had areas of their town that were significantly impacted from flooding due to all of the rain. Some of the people in those towns lost everything. Some were able to salvage a few things from their house, while others had their entire house washed away.”

The only two belongings a La Grange, TX resident found after the floods receded.

What is the role of a disaster mental health respondent?

“It’s different than other disaster response roles. The disaster mental health respondent has to observe the environment, which includes the physical environment, the people who have been impacted, and volunteers and staff to assess for safety and need.

A part of my role was to also provide support for the volunteers. Playing any type of role in a disaster is exhausting. Many of the people helping are volunteers, working in a chaotic, stressful environment. It’s physically and emotionally heavy.  The primary intervention we used was called “psychological first aid.” It is a way of promoting a person’s ability to care for themselves as well as connect with other supports.”

Describe your approach to providing support.

“The first thing to do is to observe the environment and look for people who may be more vulnerable or appear to have more need and to make a connection. It’s an art to observe and figure the best way to approach people.  Sometimes it’s as simple as asking how they are doing, where they’re coming from or offering a bottle of water or other supplies.

In the command center we (mental health disaster team) were known for our candy. We had a very well stocked bowl of candy. Everybody came by and got their candy and that was our way of making connections with people.  It was a way to check in with people in a very natural, friendly way. It also helped our working relationship with all of the other disaster response teams.”

What did you learn from this experience?

“Most of the time, I was working in Austin at the Disaster Response Command Center. It was a tremendous learning experience. I was able to work with local volunteers and experienced the full disaster response cycle from initial response to the recovery phase. Over the time I was there, the number of people in the shelters went down tremendously, but the people that remained in the shelter had more significant need.

I was really moved by being able to meet people from all over the country that were able to come out and support the efforts. I met a volunteer from New Paltz who lives only a few miles from me and volunteers from Alaska, Hawaii and a small island near Guam. I was moved by how willing people were to participate and to help.”

Why are mental health services such a vital part of the response to a disaster?

“Disasters by their nature come with profound loss and destruction way beyond most people’s ability to cope. Providing mental health services in conjunction with sheltering, safety and basic needs helps people recover faster and connect to their existing coping skills to promote resiliency. Often times in a disaster those people most severely impacted have already experienced challenges which can make it more difficult to manage. Providing support early on in the process can change someone’s trajectory significantly.

Every little bit helps. I encourage everyone that is interested in helping to visit redcross.org to learn more.”