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Healing spirits

PDA: rebuilding communities, leadership is key part of disaster recovery

June 1, 2009

NEW ORLEANS

When a disaster hits a community, more is shaken than can be seen. In addition to broken buildings and shattered streets, damage is done to a community’s spirit.

That’s where psychosocial recovery comes in.

“Psychosocial work helps people in a community find their own leadership within that community,” said Randy Ackley, coordinator of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, at a May 12 meeting of psychosocial workers here.

A big part of the work is finding people within an affected community who can identify and address the needs of that community. By caring for themselves, community members can empower themselves and address long-term needs that outsiders often cannot. While outside help is appreciated, it is valuable for survivors to be around others who can relate to their specific disaster.

“We support their skills. We don’t always teach them. We nurture the skills that, a lot of times, they already have,” said the Rev. Kathy Angi, a PC(USA) mission worker in Hungary and  psychosocial specialist with PDA. “It’s us being a witness to the fact that you do have skills … even though the experience you’ve just been through makes you feel helpless.”

Through helping others, identified leaders themselves are empowered, furthering the overall strength and healing of a community. The list of needs can be endless, but identifying their strengths gives people hope.

“To be able to help someone else is one of the most helpful experiences,” said Else Berglund, a psychosocial specialist with the Church of Sweden Aid. Two representatives from the church were present at the meeting.

Psychosocial recovery is different than other kinds of disaster mental health relief in that it takes a community approach, Ackley said. Often after a disaster, counselors will come in to an area and work with people one-on-one, but this is a very slow process. In psychosocial work, those already present in a community are identified to help address the emotional, social and spiritual needs of others.

By using the talents of people already in a community, psychosocial work helps to re-form communities after a disaster. When people must evacuate, communities break down, but psychosocial work encourages bonds to be strengthened by getting neighbors to help neighbors.

“We help stimulate the rebuilding of the support system,” Ackley said, adding that people’s perspectives are often skewed after a disaster and that psychosocial work aims to help them find new ways of seeing things.

The perception of psychosocial work is also evolving, Ackley said. After a disaster, people see the need for food and supplies, but don’t always realize that spiritual needs also must be met.

People sometimes think that emotional and spiritual needs are less pressing and should be addressed after the physical work is done, but this view ignores the importance of emotional strength when rebuilding a community, said Maria Lundberg, executive program officer of Humanitarian Assistance with the Church of Sweden.

If repairs are made without regard to the needs and circumstances of individual communities, that work can be for naught, Berglund said, adding that it’s important to listen to survivors’ needs.

Although disasters bring loss, they can also present opportunities for growth. By helping communities find their strengths and the means for their survival, psychosocial work is able to reconstruct lives, said Joseph Prewitt Diaz, a psychosocial support functional expert.

“Once people get done blaming God for whatever happened, there’s great spiritual revival,”  he said. “You survived this. You didn’t die, so make sense of it and move on.”

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