When Disaster Strikes, Who Ya Gonna Call?
by Merrill Powers, LCSW
When disaster strikes a community, where do we go for help? The police and fire departments, certainly, to provide the first response. The Red Cross and Salvation Army are on the scene quickly for assistance with basic housing, food, clothing, and mental health crisis response volunteers. Beyond that, the survivors of natural human-made disasters are usually left to their own resources for help with trauma.
Fortunately, people in the Sierra Foothill and Sacramento regions have the benefit of the NorCal EMDR Trauma Recovery Network, (NorCal TRN) a chapter of the national Trauma Recovery Network/EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program. The TRN is a volunteer network of highly skilled mental health clinicians who are EMDR Therapy Certified or have completed EMDR Therapy Basic Training (Part 1 and 2 plus 10 hours of consultation) with specialized training in disaster response. Volunteers work in Northern California communities providing five one-hour sessions of pro-bono EMDR Therapy after a local disaster to appropriate clients.
Most recently, the Chico and Sacramento chapters of the TRN have provided early intervention treatment for over 200 survivors of the Paradise area Camp Fire. The number continues to grow as people displaced from their burned-out communities are linked with therapists all over Northern California. In some cases, group treatment proves to be more efficient, using teams of specially trained therapists.
The first TRN response occurred spontaneously when EMDR therapists were on the scene in1994 in Oklahoma City to help people recover from the trauma of the Oklahoma City bombings. Volunteers later served in earthquakes in Mexico, India, and Turkey, and flooding in Indonesia and Bangladesh. The Indian Ocean tsunami in late 2004 led to Humanitarian Assistance Program (HAP) projects in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, and a year later in Indonesia. EMDR trainers and facilitators went on these missions to treat survivors and first responders, followed up by training local clinicians in EMDR.
Two major US disasters, the 9/11/2001 terrorist attack in New York and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, led clinicians to realize that instead of responding to disasters as they occur, it was important to organize in advance to be ready to help communities cope with the psychological trauma of a major emergency. Some other recent emergencies that TRN chapters have helped in their local areas are the Yarnell Arizona wildfires; Oklahoma and Alabama tornadoes; San Diego wildfires; the Boston Marathon bombing; Hurricane Sandy in NY, NJ, CT; the Sandy Hook school shooting, CT; and the Columbine High School shooting, CO.
The number of chapters has grown across the nation by recruiting local EMDR therapists trained in emergency response EMDR therapy. Local members reach out to emergency management organizations such as first responders, public health agencies, the Red Cross, school districts, and local media, to develop continuing relationships for the referral of victims and first responders who need help in recovering from a traumatic community event.
The NorCal TRN developed from the Greater Sacramento EMDR Regional Networking Group. We collaborated with coordinators in Chico and the San Francisco Bay Area to form the NorCal TRN chapter. Consequently, therapists across Northern California have been trained and ready to respond.
The goal in providing an early response is to prevent PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or to mitigate its effects, thereby quickly restoring affected first responders and members of the community to effective functioning and health. PTSD is a debilitating mental disorder that sometimes follows the experience or witness of a traumatic event. The normal response to extreme stress or trauma is for the brain to go into fight-flight-freeze mode, necessary to survive a life-threatening event. PTSD occurs when the brain becomes stuck in the response, causing flashbacks and intrusive memories of the event; sleeplessness; an extreme startle response; social isolation; anger; depression, and other symptoms that can interfere with normal functioning.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is especially effective in the treatment of PTSD. The earliest EMDR research was done in 1989 specifically to show the efficacy of the treatment for PTSD in Viet Nam veterans. The EMDR Institute’s website reports there has been so much research on EMDR therapy that it is now recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma and other disturbing experiences by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense. Over 100,000 clinicians throughout the world use the therapy. Millions of people have been treated successfully over the past 30 years.
TRN volunteers are trained in special EMDR protocols that allow for processing the recent traumatic event in relatively few sessions. Some of the protocols are better suited for individual work, and some for groups, including children. People who need more than five free initial sessions can be referred to a local EMDR therapist for continuing work. Individuals can self-refer to the TRN through the website. Representatives of agencies and community organizations responding to a disaster should contact the TRN through the website to coordinate and collaborate in providing assistance.
If you are a first responder or you belong to a local community organization that would like a member of the NorCal TRN Outreach committee to speak at your meeting or event, please visit the TRN website, http://norcal-emdr-trn.weebly.com.
Merrill Powers, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in downtown Auburn. She is the Regional Coordinator for the Greater Sacramento/Foothills TRN, a Certified EMDR therapist and an approved EMDR consultant and trainer. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-852-5066. Pennisue Hignell, Ph.D., is the Regional Coordinator for the Chico TRN. You can reach her at email@example.com or 530-518-0796. The TRN website is http://norcal-emdr-trn.weebly.com.
Follow the links below for the latest news and information about EMDR, the work of Trauma Recovery Networks, and the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program.