Trauma in Rescue and Relief Workers

When disaster strikes, rescue workers are the first to enter the scene and are usually highly exposed to traumatic and disturbing images. The environment in emergency situations, such as post hurricane disaster relief or emergency medical services after a terrorist bombing, is always stressful and often chaotic. Although rescue and relief work are both meaningful and rewarding, individuals in these professions carry a high risk of experiencing vicarious traumatization and/or post-traumatic distress.

The personal needs and reactions of relief and rescue workers are at best overlooked and dealt with after the fact, and at worst, not considered seemly for people involved in this type of work. This is particularly true as many people in these professions have a tendency to put others’ needs in front of their own. Understanding the causes of distress and teaching organizations and individuals how to take care of themselves can reduce post-traumatic symptoms and ultimately assist relief workers do their jobs more effectively.

What causes stress symptoms in relief workers?

  1. “Action-oriented” or “fixer” mentalities
    Many rescue workers (especially those who work as volunteers) are the types of people who want to make a difference and solve problems. While this is mentality is necessary for doing their jobs, it also increases the risk of guilt and frustration that rescue workers may feel when they cannot “fix” a traumatic situation.

2. Identification with a victim
The more a person puts himself in the shoes of a victim, or of a victim’s family, and the more a traumatic scenario reminds a rescue worker of something difficult that he or she has personally experienced, the greater the likelihood of increased post-traumatic symptoms.

3. Witnessing death and disaster
This is especially difficult if the death was violent, the body was torn apart, or if the victim died in the rescue workers’ arms. Seeing the death of fellow rescue workers or children can be particularly traumatic.

4. Lack of support and leadership
Often rescue workers are sent into chaotic situations with minimal support and unclear instructions. Lack of support and leadership can also increase post-traumatic symptoms in a disaster situation.

What can individuals do to help themselves deal with the trauma associated with their work?

  1. Take Breaks
    Taking time for yourself – whether this be a couple of minutes every few hours, or a day every few days) as a break from disaster relief effort is crucial. In addition, when your shift is over, leave and rest up. All of these things ultimately make you more productive. Simple actions like deep breathing, simple relaxation techniques like these we offer [LINK] and walks around the block can make a big difference.

2. Take Care of Your Basic Needs
Eating properly and sleeping as much as possible are extremely helpful in dealing with stressful events. In addition, staying away from alcohol, junk food, and caffeine can also be helpful. Exercise is a good way to increase energy.

3. Seek Support
Peer support and interaction is crucial. This is important both through contact with co-workers who are dealing with similar experiences, as well as maintaining open communication with friends and family at home. Don’t hesitate to seek professional support if you think it could help.

4. Cultivate an Awareness of Your Emotional State
It is important to know yourself and what hurts and helps you the most. Understanding and recognizing your own stress reactions is important. Avoid overly identifying with victims and try to understand the difference between professional helping and friendly helping. Try and realize that feelings of guilt are irrational.

What can organizations do to help prevent and manage the stress of their workers?

  1. Provide effective leadership and structure, including necessary supplies, information and a chain of command for emergency procedures.

2. Encourage and provide forums for people to talk to one another and share their experiences.

3. Encourage people to look out for and assess one another while working.

4. Make sure rescue workers are eating regularly and receiving adequate sleep, and allow for time off away from the disaster site.

5. Provide as much information about the disaster and trauma to your workers as you can.

6. Provide referral to mental health care providers where necessary, and have information about mental health services readily available to employees.