Counselors offer ‘psychological first aid’ after tragedy

ARLINGTON — When disaster strikes, all people can do is be there for those touched by the tragedy. There is never a right thing to say.

That’s according to Martha Read, a licensed counselor who’s leading the mental-health response for the American Red Cross in the aftermath of the Oso mudslide.

“You can be a compassionate presence. It seems simple, but just being there helps,” said Read, disaster relief veteran.

Read is spearheading an effort the Red Cross calls psychological first aid.

On Monday, eight other mental health professionals and 105 volunteers were poised to use the method to help people in distress. Psychological first aid includes communication basics — compassion, listening and responding.

For one Red Cross worker, this disaster hit particularly close to home.

Mar Tobiason is a Marysville native who works in communications for the Red Cross from San Diego. In the past 20 years, she has weathered many storms, including tornadoes in Oklahoma and Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

“But this is my back yard,” Tobiason said, as tears welled up. “You kind of just jump into action mode and try to hold back the tears.”

So far, counselors have met with more than 100 people affected by the slide.

“They’re having an incredibly difficult and stressful time,” Read said. “That has different looks to it. People are going to have a multitude of reactions, and that’s not unusual.”

The Red Cross has another 28 counselors and more volunteers on the way.

“There are a lot of people who are awaiting information, and it’s very distressing,” Read said.

Because Read has not experienced a personal loss in this disaster, she did not want to speak for those who are affected.

“This is their event. We can support and hand out assistance, but we need to let them define their event,” she said. “That’s hard to do because we all want to do something.”

Counselors on the ground have their sights set on preventing afflictions such as post traumatic stress disorder. They do that by using psychological first aid to encourage proactive mental health care immediately after a crisis.

“There are some really simple things you can do to relieve stress,” Read said, including eating well, resting and staying connected to family and friends.

Being patient with others, setting priorities and gathering information on useful resources can also help. Taking these simple steps as soon as possible can prevent additional issues on down the road.

“It’s important to get into a routine that’s comfortable as soon as possible,” said Lynne Slouber, another Red Cross mental health professional who is working in Arlington. “As difficult as it may seem, we encourage people to stay positive.”

Read said she has observed resilience in the people affected by the mudslide. It will help the community bounce back as time passes, she said.

“There’s nothing normal about any of this,” Read said. “It won’t go back to the same way it was, but it will go back to a situation where they’re able to manage daily life in a way that feels comfortable.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com.

Where to find help

If you are dealing with stress or trauma related to the Oso mudslide, or know someone who is, there’s no substitute for one-on-one professional help. Meantime, there are numerous resources on the Web to help you identify issues and solutions.

Selected mental-health resources online:

American Psychiatric Association, “When Disaster Strikes”: www.psychiatry.org/practice/professional-interests/disaster-psychiatry/when-disaster-strikes

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Coping With a Traumatic Event”: emergency.cdc.gov/masscasualties/copingpub.asp

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