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Maine VolunteerFare

Providing Emotional Support for Volunteers in Disaster Situations

Published May 16, 2006


Relief volunteers may witness human tragedy and serious physical injuries, depending on the nature of the disaster and their role. In disasters in which there is a high level of exposure to human suffering, injuries and fatalities, providing psychological support and interventions for volunteers is especially necessary.


According to the document, Operation Blue Roof and Beyond: Protocol on the Deployment of AmeriCorps Teams for Disaster Recovery, effective practices include:

Discuss the signs and symptoms of volunteer stress, as early recognition and intervention are optimal. Educating supervisors and staff about signs of stress enables them to be on the lookout and to take appropriate steps. When programs emphasize stress recognition and reduction, norms are established that validate early intervention rather than reinforcing more common "distress is a sign of weakness" perspective.

In addition to physical health, take some time to consider mental health as well. The days and weeks after a hurricane are going to be rough. Remember that some sleeplessness, anxiety, anger, hyperactivity, mild depression, or lethargy are normal, and may go away with time. If you feel any of these symptoms acutely, counseling should be sought.

Your state and local health departments will help you find the local resources, including hospitals or health care providers that you may need. Information and additional resources can be found at

Regular debriefing and reflection is recommended, either among the AmeriCorps teams or, if available, with a mental health professional that is trained to help relief volunteers cope with the stress of recovery missions. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army have trained professionals to assist relief volunteers with the emotional stress of the recovery mission.

Supervisors should be aware of the following common disaster worker stress reactions, (from Common Disaster Worker Stress Reactions, The Center for Mental Health Services, 1994)

Psychological and Emotional: Feeling heroic, invulnerable and euphoric, denial, anxiety and fear, worry about safety of self and others, anger, irritability, restlessness, sadness, grief, depression, moodiness, distressing dreams, guilt or "survivor guilt," feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, feeling isolated, lost or abandoned, apathy and identification with survivors.

Cognitive: Memory problems, disorientation, confusion, slowness of thinking and comprehension, difficulty calculating, setting priorities, making decisions, poor concentration, limited attention span, loss of objectivity, unable to stop thinking about the disaster and blaming.

Behavioral: Change in activity, decreased efficiency and effectiveness, difficulty communicating, increased sense of humor, outbursts of anger, frequent arguments, inability to rest or "letdown," change in eating habits, change in sleeping patterns, change in patterns of intimacy and sexuality, change in job performance, periods of crying, increased use of alcohol, tobacco or drugs, social withdrawal, silence, vigilance about safety or environment, avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories and proneness to accidents.

Physical: Increased heartbeat and respiration, increased blood pressure, upset stomach, nausea and diarrhea, change in appetite, weight loss or gain, sweating or chills, tremors (hands, lips), muscle twitching, "muffled" hearing, tunnel vision, feeling uncoordinated, headaches, soreness in muscles, lower back pain, feeling a "lump in the throat," exaggerated startle reaction, fatigue, menstrual cycle changes, change in sexual desire, decreased resistance to infection, flare-up of allergies and arthritis and hair loss.


As with disaster survivors, assessment of relief workers hinges on the question of "How much 'normal stress reaction' is too much?" Many of the above listed reactions are commonly experienced by disaster volunteers with limited job effects. However, when a number are experienced simultaneously and intensely, functioning is likely to be impaired. Under these circumstances, the volunteer should take a break from the disaster assignment for a few hours at first, and then longer if necessary. If normal functioning does not return, then the person needs to discontinue the assignment.

To read this article in full, visit:

National Service Resources Effective Practices.