Red Cross mental health volunteers help wildfire survivors cope with loss

Red Cross volunteer Carl Manning of the Greater Kansas City Chapter recently was deployed as part of the Public Affairs team assigned to the Gatlinburg, Tennessee wildfire. These stories show some of the ways the Red Cross was able to help those affected by the fire.

By Carl Manning
American Red Cross

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American Red Cross volunteer Karen Bussell of Knoxville talks to a resident at the Red Cross shelter in Gatlinburg after a wildfire swept through the area. Karen is a mental health counselor who talks to those affected by disaster to help them cope with what they have been through. (Photo by Carl Manning /American Red Cross)

When fire roared through the hills surrounding Gatlinburg in the darkness of a Monday evening devouring everything in its path, many families had only minutes to escape and some did not make it. Such harrowing experiences can trigger emotional distress that is hard to shake.

Helping people deal with the emotional distress triggered by disaster falls to American Red Cross mental health counselors like Karen Bussell, who has been spending her days in Gatlinburg talking to residents whose homes have been destroyed or damaged.

On a recent day, Karen, a retired school psychologist in Knoxville, approached a man at the Red Cross shelter in Gatlinburg and asked how he was doing. He didn’t want to talk so she moved on. But a couple hours later, he returned and they had a conversation about his experience.

“Having someone who will listen validates self worth,” Karen said. “People need to tell their story. That’s part of the healing process and it also helps relieve the emotions to discuss.”

It turns out the man had a harrowing story to tell. When the fire started, he loaded his vehicle with as many of his neighbors as he could and literally drove through the flames to safety. But he couldn’t get everybody out, and that was a failure that gnawed at his soul.

Karen said that was classic survivor’s guilt – a feeling she said is common among those who escape unharmed from a disaster, while others they know perish.

“He couldn’t help everybody and that messed with his self worth,” she said. “He felt he had let people down. He had helped a lot of people but he couldn’t help everyone.”

After awhile she got him to see things from a different perspective.

“He was focused on what he couldn’t do rather than what he did and we got him to start thinking about what he did which was to save a lot lives,” she said.

Often, talking is a good first step toward healing.

“Talking through your traumatic experience helps you organize your thoughts and process what happened and helps the healing. Sometimes it helps with the healing process to say it out loud,” she said.

Karen pointed out that children often mirror the feelings of their parents. As long as parents seem OK, then so will the children. Also, as long as children have something to do to keep their minds active, they will be distracted from what happened. That’s why at the shelter the Red Cross and its many partners have organized numerous activities for the children.

People under stress feel physically and mentally drained, getting frustrated more quickly and more often. To help manage these feelings, the Red Cross provides people with coping tips during events over which they have no control.

  • Eat properly and maintain a balanced diet, drink plenty of water and get some rest.
  • Stay connected with friends and family. Support reduces that feeling of being alone.
  • Be patient with those around you and recognize that everyone is stressed and may need time to put their feeling and thoughts in order.
  • Remain positive and remember having successfully gone through other tough times.
  • Reach out when support is needed and help others when they need it.

Spiritual Care Team Important In Disaster Recovery Process

Red Cross volunteer Carl Manning of the Greater Kansas City Chapter recently was deployed as part of the Public Affairs team assigned to the Gatlinburg, Tennessee wildfire. These stories show some of the ways the Red Cross was able to help those affected by the fire

By Carl Manning
American Red Cross

Carol Lilleaas was sitting on her cot in the American Red Cross shelter in Gatlinburg, Tennessee where she has been since her home and just about everything in it was reduced to ashes from the wildfire that swept through the area.

Lee Ragsdale, a member of the Red Cross spiritual care team, saw her sitting there and joined her on the cot. Their talk started as a few words that ins short order blossomed into a fully animated conversation. In a few minutes she was smiling for the first time since she had arrived at the shelter.

She explained that the only thing she really regretted losing in the fire was the U.S. flag that covered the coffin of her career Army husband when he died 12 years ago.

“I woke up in the middle of the night, thought about it and start crying. It was the only thing that made me cry,” she said.

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Lee Ragsdale, a member of the American Red Cross disaster spiritual care team, talks to Carol Lilleaas, whose home was destroyed by the wildfire that swept through the Gatlinburg, Tennessee area. Carol said the only thing she regretted losing in the fire was the U.S. flag that covered the coffin of her career Army husband who died 12 years ago. (Photo by Carl Manning/American Red Cross)

While Lee wouldn’t discuss specifics of his conversation with her, he did say that she’s a strong woman.

“I just reminded her of her strength and reassured her that she was capable and that she shouldn’t feel ashamed asking for help,” Lee said.

An ordained Episcopal deacon, Lee also is a Knoxville Police Department chaplain. This is his first time as a member of the Red Cross disaster spiritual care team and said he’s enjoying being able to help those in need.

“It was everything that I thought it was going to be and more. I’m essentially in awe of what’s going on,” he said.

Spiritual care is about reaching out to people and helping them overcome their adversities, whether it’s with a conversation or helping with such things as getting a wheelchair fixed or finding food for the family dog.

All spiritual care responders are trained to provide appropriate and respectful disaster spiritual care in line with Red Cross fundamental principles of impartiality and neutrality. It’s best to let the survivors follow their own beliefs. Some welcome prayer while others don’t.

“Praying isn’t necessary. If they don’t ask, then I don’t push it,” Lee said. “Whatever brings comfort to them, I’m always willing to facilitate,” he said. “The first thing is to be there for them and really listen and understand and let them know that.”

He said when people feel they are being understood, it enables them to open up and discuss their emotions and other issues.

“If I can help them to move from awareness to acceptance and finally to action, then I’ve helped to promote that healing they need,” he said.