Only weeks removed from Hurricane Harvey, some Texas REALTORS® in areas affected by the storm were already back at work meeting with clients, making presentations, showing homes, and helping out in their communities. But no matter where you live, your work can put you in front of Texans deeply affected by Harvey.
If you’ve never received training on how to interact with people reeling from a natural disaster, this could be a daunting position to be in, but there are best practices you can keep in mind when reaching out to clients or others who’ve suffered because of Harvey.
Dean Sparks, the disaster mental health lead for the American Red Cross relief operation in Texas, says people who’ve been through disasters often feel physically unsafe and uncertain about their future. “You’ve got to try and figure out how to make people feel safe,” he says.
One way to do that is to know what resources are available in your community, according to Jennifer First, mental health program manager for the Disaster and Community Crisis Center at the University of Missouri. That could be where to find physical shelter, mental health resources, assistance programs, or even community support.
In addition to resources for parents who need strategies for relating to their children, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers training for non-mental health professionals who want to better help those who’ve experienced a natural disaster or another traumatic event:
- Psychological First Aid walks participants through how to respond to people who’ve just been through a disaster
- Skills for Psychological Recovery is centered around skills that survivors of traumatic events can use to manage stress and better cope with adversity.
More information on these trainings is at nctsn.org.
“When you’re talking to people, think about How can I promote safety? How can I promote comfort? How can I connect them to resources that will help them in the long term?” First says.
“Help them feel like they’ve got some kind of control,” Sparks says, even if it’s something as simple as asking whether they’d like to drink water or iced tea. They may need guidance or help focusing, he says, but let them be the manager of their situation. “We need to empower them to make the decisions about their own life,” Sparks says.
Strategies that don’t work
Avoid mentioning silver linings, trying to look for a bright side, telling them to calm down, or saying it’ll get better soon, according to First. Don’t denigrate how they feel affected by the disaster, don’t tell them how they should feel, and don’t make promises you can’t keep, Sparks says.
“Follow that person’s lead,” First says. Empathize with them—That sounds really hard—then check if they have people they can talk to, and if not, what kind of support or relationship would make them feel comfortable.
Create community connections
“What helps a lot of people are things like social connections,” First says. “These kind of events are experienced collectively. Research shows that seeking out connections and searching out other people is one of the strongest predictors for recovery.”
That support could take the form of community events like dinners or one-on-one connections.
“I’m seeing ‘Houston Strong’ all over the place,” Sparks says. “When you’ve got that kind of community support, that’s good. It helps in the recovery.”
People tend to band together in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, First says, but it’s important to continue to reach out to people once the initial period winds down and people go back to dealing with the individual effects.
When you’re talking to people, think about How can I promote safety? How can I promote comfort? How can I connect them to resources that will help them in the long term?
Jennifer First, mental health program manager for the Disaster and Community Crisis Center at the University of Missouri
Recovery is an individual process, First says. For some, participating in physical labor, feeding people, or other altruistic activities could be helpful. Inviting people you’ve developed a rapport with to do things can make them feel like a part of something.
Sparks says that when he assess people for recovery he looks for whether they’re eating right, sleeping adequately, getting back to their routine, and not isolating themselves.
During the first couple weeks after a disaster is when you see a lot of the reactions, according to First. “In the mental health world, we stress that those are normal given what’s happened,” she says. “If those reactions hang on past a few weeks and they’re interfering with a person’s daily life … that’s when it could potentially be a mental health problem.”
But we’re still early in the recovery process, Sparks says.
Trying to get back to that normal state and routine is important, First says. But sometimes people who are busy put mental health on the back burner and issues can hang on. “Then they may need additional support,” she says, but a large part of the population will eventually return to their normal functioning state.
“Most people are pretty resilient,” Sparks says.