Jamaican Red Cross helps hurricane victims to talk

Published: 27 September 2004 0:00 CET

Cristina Estrada in Kingston

When a disaster strikes, relief focuses on physical issues like food, shelter and water. But, in general, there is less emphasis on the psychological wellbeing of people who have often just endured great trauma.

But the Jamaican Red Cross (JRC), which has been working to help those affected by Hurricane Ivan, which smashed into the island on 11 September, has been addressing their psychological as well as material needs.

Jamaican Red Cross mental health teams have been active since the hours after the hurricane hit the island, focusing on basic interventions with evacuees in emergency shelters. If they find a critical case, they refer them on for ongoing care.

“In most cases, people just need reassuring that what they are feeling is normal, that they are not going crazy,” says Angela Gordon, the head of the Jamaican Red Cross mental health team.

First they work in groups then one to one. “Many of them never thought about their emotional responses. They didn’t understand that their feelings were related to what they’d lived with the hurricane” Gordon says.

“Many found themselves going round and round in circles, trying to do a thousand things and not achieving anything. We teach them also how to help each others as a community,” she adds with her gentle but firm voice.

A key part of the programme is getting people to feel valued members of their community. Many have lost everything, some even relatives, and there is little or nothing for them to do. They spend too long in shelters and a culture of dependency relationship develops

To counter this, the programme seeks the help of shelter managers. They can get people involved in activities and make them feel useful, while at the same time developing a sense of community.

“We have to think that the people in these shelters are often low-income single parents with little education and very low self-esteem,” Gordon explains. “We try to give them practical solutions, a few tips that hopefully will have impact and improve their situation”.

“We help them understand the feelings and emotions they are going through, especially how to identify the effects in children - for example if they are wetting the bed again or they are holding on to their mum or dad all the time. We help them try to cope with this as parents, trying to avoid them mistreating the children,” she adds.

Children are the most vulnerable in this type of situation, though at the same time, the most likely to heal faster, if reached in time.

The team of JRC volunteers has also been raising awareness among school staff, helping them to understand how the disaster may affect children’s behaviour. Many children were already unsettled by the start of the school year, which happened just one week before the hurricane struck.

In Jamaica schools, it is compulsory to wear uniforms, and most children have lost theirs. Schools are therefore being urged to be flexible on issues like this.

Angela joined the Red Cross shortly after Hurricane Gilbert hit Jamaica in 1999. “That time, I lost the roof of my house and everything inside got damaged. I felt very stressed. Luckily I was insured and I had a secure job, so I could put the roof back. But what happens to other people that aren’t so lucky? What happens to all these people who took years to build and gather their possession little by little and with a lot of effort?”

This question and its answer was what made her, and people like her, join the Red Cross and start up the psychological support programme. The Jamaican Red Cross mental health teams include 28 people, including psychologists, social workers and psychiatric nurses. They never operate with fewer than two persons per team. All of them are volunteers.

Since all of these volunteers are from the capital, Kingston, Angela’s hope is to build up a team of volunteers in other parishes. However, most important for her now is to train all Red Cross staff and volunteers to identify possible reactions to post-hurricane stress.

“Even if you are responsible for a feeding programme, if you understand beneficiaries’ reactions and your own response to stress, your work will be more effective,” she says.