Know When to Refer
It is important that you recognize when a disaster survivor may need additional follow-up services from a licensed mental health professional. Pay attention to common stress reactions. The list of possible symptoms is long and includes changes in emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physical, and spiritual domains. Also, pay attention to stress symptoms that seem really intense, don’t seem to go away with time, start to interfere with everyday life, or appear much later (further removed from the event) than you expect. If any of those occur, you should start to be concerned.
Look for signs of serious symptoms like extreme emotional reactions, impulsive or risky behaviors, and self-medication with drugs or alcohol. These sorts of behaviors are all red flags indicating professional support may be needed. Moreover, listen for signals that your loved one might be thinking about or contemplating harm to self or others, or even ending their own life. Make sure you are not ignoring a potential cry for help. Referring a loved one who may be considering harm to self or others to a mental health professional can save a life.
When we help others affected by disasters, we sometimes forget to consider our own needs. This can put us at risk for “compassion fatigue” and burnout. The people you are helping need you now—but they are also going to need you over the long haul. You will be a more effective helper if you remember to help yourself, too. Listen to your body and pay attention to what your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are trying to tell you. Be mindful that helping others affected by disasters can sometimes unearth your own previous hurts and struggles. Be sure to find time to recharge among the chaos. As best as you can, look for ways to bring some normalcy to your daily routine in the wake of disaster. Yes, you are doing God’s work as you care for others. But keep in mind that even Christ sought out moments and times of solitude, fellowship, and renewal during his ministry on Earth. You would be wise to do the same.
The following are further resources provided by Church Law & Tax, for churches and church leaders seeking guidance on disaster ministry:
- “How to Start a Disaster Ministry” by Jamie Aten
- “Disaster and Emergency Readiness in the Local Church” by John R. Throop
- Serving as a Disaster Relief Team
- When Disaster Strikes
Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and the founder and director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Disaster Ministry Conference at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). He is also the co-author of the Disaster Ministry Handbook. Follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website, jamieaten.com.
Dr. Laura Shannonhouse is an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), a National Certified Counselor (NCC), and an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Trainer (ASIST).
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