A psychosocial support (PSS) programme developed by mental health experts from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has been adapted to support hundreds of hardworking volunteers who were among those mobilized when Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, struck the islands of the Visayas in the Philippines.
By Kate Marshall, IFRC
An estimated 8,500 volunteers were mobilized across the affected regions at the height of the Haiyan emergency response during the months of November and December.
Elin Jonasdottir, IFRC PSS worker, arrived in Tacloban in early December and worked with Philippine Red Cross social services team to present stress management sessions for key staff and volunteers. Now, the module has been rewritten for a Filipino audience and is being rolled out to volunteers in Ormoc, Tacloban and Cebu.
Jonasdottir said including games and play therapy were an important part of the process of encouraging volunteers to release any pent-up tension or emotions. “You need to have fun when processing and recovering from difficult experiences,” said Jonasdottir, “When I met the staff and volunteers, I was reminded that we don’t necessarily show what we feel. Many of them smiled at first, but the mask soon fell away. While supporting other people, they had to face their own losses and destruction of their neighbourhoods.”
The day-long session starts with an icebreaker, which is followed by a discussion on the causes of stress and how to cope with them, and group exercises. Finally, volunteers are given the opportunity to share their experiences, frustrations and stories of loss.
The head of Philippine Red Cross’ social services, Zenaida Beltejar, said PSS workers in the field, many of whom are in their 20s, is vitally important. “Many of them have been working without a break and are mentally as well as physically exhausted. The psychosocial support provides relief; it breaks the cycle of cumulative stress and offers suggestions for self-care and exercise,” said Beltejar during a session organised for a large group of young volunteers from the Ormoc City, Leyte chapter. Of the 86 attendees, some were in school uniform and the youngest was 12 years old. Volunteers at Philippine Red Cross can join from the age of six, and the program is structured in such a way that volunteers considered to have potential are encouraged to become team leaders once they turn 18. During the Haiyan response, some college students were given key responsibilities in tracing, radio operations and health activities.
One of the participants, Rex Dela Cruz, who is a safety and security officer for the Ormoc City chapter, said emotions ran high as the day progressed: “It somehow dawned on us that we’d all worked together for three months and that the typhoon had connected us. This psychosocial session was really helpful – it was the first time we had been reunited since being disbanded. Some of us had been full-time volunteers well before Yolanda, and some were very new. There had been tensions between the ‘old’ volunteers and the ‘new’ volunteers, and the session was an opportunity to let go of all the slights and hidden grudges. Some people even told their team leader to their face: ‘You didn’t listen to us, you were shouting at times’, and that brought the issue into the open so it could be resolved.”
“We all realized that we had been working together very closely during Yolanda, but we all come from different backgrounds and schools. Yolanda brought us together, and that’s what I loved the most,” said Dela Cruz.
This article was originally published on the IFRC website.