As I sat down to write my first blog, I had a few ideas spinning around in my head. So often, I find myself musing about something a client said or an interesting experience shared by a colleague. I figured it would be easy to decide on a topic. But as I started to write, my thoughts kept coming back to the recent tornadoes and our colleagues who have responded to that disaster. An article in our local newspaper profiled some counselors and the work they are doing in the tornado damaged areas. Maybe because I have been where they are or maybe because of my interest in counselor wellness, I have not been able to get these counselors and their task out of my head.
Counselors are at the forefront of disaster response each time a call for help goes out. We know that having counselors on the ground helps survivors through the most trying of times and makes a significant difference as they begin to rebuild their lives. In being there, however, our colleagues face challenges that in some ways they cannot prepare for in advance. Living and working in post-Katrina south Louisiana, I can say unequivocally that even with the best of disaster training, what we expect is often far different from the realities of a disaster zone. Training can prepare us for what to do when we get there, but it cannot fully prepare us for the reality of the sights, sounds, smells, and conditions we may face.
The experience of working with trauma survivors can have significant and long-lasting effects on the counselor. The best research suggests that trauma responders fare best when they have a stable support system and practice good self-care both during and after their service on site. Whether they are there on their own or as part of an organized response team, it is important to have a plan in place to cope with the emotional impact of doing trauma work. That plan might include us.
Last year, our state’s annual conference theme was “We Are Family”. We may have different interests, different approaches, or different practice settings. But at the end of the day, we are all counselors. We are a family. And in times of need, families take care of and support their members. So, as I began thinking of these brave and giving counselors, I wondered, “what can we, as colleagues, as family, do for them?” What might they need? What can we offer to them?
Reach Out to Them – If you know a counselor who has been to a disaster area, ask him or her how they’re doing. As counselors, we are quick to help but often hesitant to acknowledge our own needs. Sometimes just a friendly encounter with someone who understands what we do is healing in itself. The person you ask might be just fine. If you sense that the counselor is really struggling, say so. Offer to help them seek out the support they need.
Offer Your Services – For the counselor who recognizes he or she may need some help, reaching out can be a scary proposition. If your community is like mine, it is small and many of us know each other or know of each other. The idea of calling on a fellow clinician for help can be quite intimidating. What will they think of us? Knowing who is able to “counsel the counselor” is another issue. Although I am sure there are many fine counselors who provide that service, how often do we see that listed as a specialty or provided service? Being able to identify a colleague who understands the needs of a trauma counselor can significantly reduce the fear associated with reaching out and increase the likelihood that the counselor will reach out. If you have a relief agency in your area, let them know you provide services for trauma counselors. Ask if your state’s branch of ACA has a website where you can provide that information.
Consider Starting A Support Group – If there are a number of responders from your area, consider starting a support group. Sometimes sharing that post-disaster experience with other responders can provide a place for support and healing.
Find Ways to Connect – Local networking meetings or workshops are always a great place to connect with colleagues. And with electronic media, finding support doesn’t have to be face-to-face anymore. Reach out to each other via email. Start a discussion thread. Blog. You never know who might see what you’re doing. Someone might just need the kind of support or information you’re offering. The main thing is to get people talking and connecting with a support system.
I’m sure there are a gazillion ideas for reaching out to support our colleagues. What do counselors do in your area to support each other? We are all helpers and are quick to answer a call for help. But we can also help and look out for each other. So, to all of our colleagues who respond when the call comes, thank you for the service that you provide to communities in need. Know that your counseling family supports you!
Dawn Ferrara is a counselor in private practice and clinical manager for a community-based children’s mental health program. Her areas of interest include disaster mental health counseling, lifestyle management, and counselor wellness.