Returning Home can be Challenging for Volunteers

Story and Photos by: Rick Harvey, American Red Cross

Being assigned to an American Red Cross Disaster Relief Operation can be a rewarding and life-changing experience.  It can also be a mentally-taxing time that isn’t fully noticed until a volunteer returns home.

That’s why it’s so important for those leaving a deployment to visit with Disaster Mental Health volunteers, who are trained to help prepare those leaving an operation on things to expect when they return home to their family and friends.

“Whether someone has been on one or 101 relief operations, there is what I call ‘re-entry issues’,” said Judy Nicholson, the Disaster Mental Health Chief for the South Carolina flood relief operation. 
“When we return home, it’s important to be gentle and aware of our emotions.”

According to the “Coping with Disaster: For the Families of Disaster Workers” document that can be found on the Exchange, “when disaster workers return home, they are usually tired and may continue to think about the operation.”

Larry Martens, Disaster Mental Health volunteer, talks with
a family affected by the recent flooding at the
Multi-Agency Resource Center in Kingstree, S.C.
“Though they have returned home, they may still feel a need to reassure themselves about the safety of their environment,” the document continues. “Workers often feel unsettled because they feel they couldn’t get everything done at the disaster operation. Disaster experience can also temporarily overshadow everyday events at home and make them seem less important. Therefore at first, you may seem preoccupied and less in touch with what is happening at home … and may need a little time to readjust to life as usual.”

Nicholson, who has been a mental health volunteer with the Red Cross for 22 years, said volunteers being solely focused on the operation while deployed is one of the biggest challenges.

“It may just be a matter of being tired and not realizing the need to catch up on sleep,” Nicholson said. “The reality is we are sort of in a bubble while deployed. Some people have been deployed for a lengthy period of time and they bond with folks who are here and it becomes their family. And then when they return home they may have to deal with some resentment from their family, especially if the person who’s been away missed a birthday, an anniversary or a special moment.”

Even if it’s brief, those deployed should make a point to take a few minutes to discuss their operation experience with a mental health volunteer, Nicholson said.

“It’s so key,” she said. “Talk to our mental health workers and tell them what you’ve done and how it went. We relate to people and want to help them leave with a sense of accomplishment, thinking about the good things they experienced and not with the feeling of just holding on to the bad stuff.”

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