In the month after Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake, more than 9,000 passengers, including an estimated 7,500 American citizens, landed at the Orlando Sanford International Airport. One of those greeting the passengers was David Romano, PhD, Florida’s APA Disaster Response Network coordinator and a licensed psychologist in the state. During the weeks of the operation, he spent hours serving as an American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer. His main role was assisting arriving passengers to their next destination, be that another flight, a bus or a hospital for medical treatment. He also served as a source of stability and support in the midst of chaos.

“People were grieving lost relatives or concerned that family members wouldn’t know where they were,” says Romano, a psychology professor at Barry University and executive director of the Orlando Institute for Psychology and Education. “We helped them take the breath they needed to take.”

The positive effects of this type of support may not always be evident during a traumatic event, but research shows that protective coping strategies such as putting together an action plan and getting help from others in the immediate aftermath of a disaster help prevent ongoing distress (JAMA, Vol. 288, No. 10). While APA does not encourage psychologists to freelance as disaster responders or provide counseling to disaster survivors without appropriate training, psychologists can serve as great listeners and logistical organizers, says Margie Schroeder, director of APA’s Disaster Response Network.

“Psychologists help people marshal their own coping skills and figure out how to take small steps toward making things better for themselves after a disaster,” Schroeder says.

While the full scale of the devastation from earthquakes in Haiti and Chile in January and February is impossible to measure, psychologists across the United States and Canada are volunteering to provide support, Schroeder says. It’s also likely that U.S. psychologists will be called on to help leaders and mental health professionals in these countries develop programs to assess the psychological health of survivors. American psychologists are poised to help address post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other psychological needs, and to collaborate with Haitian and Chilean psychologists to conduct research and identify ways to prepare for future disasters.

Aid for local communities

In the aftermath of large-scale natural disasters, APA urges members to follow the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings. These guidelines say psychologists should not travel to foreign countries to provide psychological support unless they are well-versed in the country’s history, politics, culture and language — and then only if they have been trained in disaster mental health and invited.

University of Miami psychology professor Guerda Nicolas, PhD, for example, is a Haitian-American psychologist who, even before the earthquake struck, had been partnering with colleagues in Port-au-Prince to train Haitian medical professionals and educators on how to conduct comprehensive psychological assessments and identify mental and behavioral health issues and traumatic stress among Haitians. She is one of only a handful of U.S. psychologists who have been engaged in Haiti’s on-the-ground recovery.

But the need for psychological services extends beyond the borders of the countries experiencing the disaster firsthand, says APA’s New York DRN coordinator, Robin Goodman, PhD. More than 232,000 Haitian-Americans live in the New York metropolitan area. To help distressed families, Goodman coordinated distribution of psychological resources in English, French and Creole throughout the New York area. She also enlisted psychologist volunteers to assist New York social services agency staff in providing information on coping strategies and self-care to public school and adult education students and in conducting a support group in one of the area’s largest Haitian communities.

“Just educating people on the range of experiences and reactions that they’ll have in the midst of crisis and encouraging the use of social supports can be very effective,” Goodman says.

Psychologists in Florida and New York are also reaching out to cultural organizations and church groups to offer psychological resources and educational materials. In particular, they want to help Haitians reintegrate themselves into the local communities, Romano says. He is also working with the Florida Psychological Association to assemble a group of psychologists with experience in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder to provide one or two pro-bono therapy sessions for returning relief workers affected by the disaster.

APA’s response

Shortly after the Haiti earthquake, APA made a $10,000 donation for Haiti earthquake relief to the American Red Cross International Response Fund. In addition, the APA Disaster Response Network and association staff worked quickly after both of the earthquakes to provide psychological resources to the public about how to cope with disaster from afar and find productive ways to help. APA also distributed a press release listing its resources for trauma response and recovery. Time magazine, Guideposts and the Huffington Post were among the many outlets that promoted APA’s resources and included comments from psychologists on the psychological toll the earthquake may take on survivors.

For members, APA posted guidance on responding to international disasters on its Web site.

To help ensure long-term support for people coping with the aftermath of these two earthquakes, APA has developed a clearinghouse of disaster-related psychological resources and information. The database, on APA’s Web site, links to international guidelines for psychologists who want to volunteer to help during humanitarian disasters. It also offers fact sheets and other materials to help community workers, parents and employers assess and address disaster-related psychological issues, as well as links to peer-reviewed research and scholarly articles on disaster response and recovery.

“One of the things that we hear over and over is that it is crucial even during first response to take a long-term time perspective to support psychosocial recovery and resilience,” says Merry Bullock, PhD, senior director of APA’s Office of International Affairs. “We hope to support long-term recovery and resilience through these materials and by encouraging psychologists to become trained and informed.”

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.