Needed: Health and Mental Health Professionals to Volunteer

By Eilene E. Guy, American Red Cross Volunteer

Home fires, floods, hurricanes, wildfires. When American Red Cross volunteers respond to these disasters, they offer shelter, food and compassion — as well as health and mental health attention.

The public generally doesn’t see the health and mental health services. For the most part, they don’t show up in coverage of urgent disaster responses. But they’re critical in the first hours and days of helping victims cope with their new reality.

Lost medications, destroyed medical equipment, missed doctor’s appointments, emerging conditions such as COVID or the flu. These are all pressing needs that trained medical professionals know how to meet. And they can administer first aid for victims as well as disaster workers.

Meanwhile, licensed mental health professionals address the emotional side of a disaster, triaging who needs a few sessions with a skilled listener and who needs to be referred to local mental health resources for extended care.

Faced with an almost unprecedented number of natural and human-caused disasters, the Red Cross has launched a targeted recruitment drive: Be One, Bring One. The goal is to enlist volunteers from the medical and mental health fields. Trisha Horvath, RN MSN, from Kirtland, Ohio, is one of the leaders of this drive.

Trisha Horvath, Red Cross Volunteer, RN MSN, from Kirtland, Ohio

“I think all nurses are humanitarians,” Trisha said. “That’s why they do what they do, to alleviate suffering.”

The reality is, the vast majority of licensed medical and mental health professionals don’t have flexibility in their work schedules to volunteer for disaster response, much as they might like to, she said.

So Trisha is helping the Red Cross “think outside the box.” They’re emphasizing the opportunities for virtual “deployments” and the rewards to volunteers in the form of resilience training and CEUs — not to mention the personal satisfaction of helping people in their most vulnerable situations.

The Red Cross is approaching graduate school students and faculty as well as non-traditional workplaces where health and mental health professionals are found, such as insurance companies. Many of these folks already work virtually, so they know how to engage with people remotely.

Gail Wernick, the Red Cross Northern Ohio regional volunteer services officer, emphasizes that volunteer shift scheduling is flexible for on-call and scheduled commitments. Typically, volunteers are expected to be available, as needed, for two weeks every three months.

Gail Wernick, Red Cross Northern Ohio Regional Volunteer Services Officer

Gail’s goal is to have a roster of 21 trained disaster health volunteers with active and unencumbered licenses: RNs, LPNs, Licensed Vocational Nurses, Nurse Practitioners, Advance Practice Nurses, Medical Doctors, Doctors of Osteopathy or Physician Assistants. Tap here for more information or to apply.

Trisha is particularly concerned about what she calls the “dearth of mental health volunteers.” There are currently half of the goal of 17 such volunteers on the Northern Ohio team.

The Be One, Bring One campaign is aimed at currently licensed mental health professionals holding a master’s degree as well as retired mental health professionals who were in good standing when they retired and held a license within five years of onboarding as a Disaster Mental Health volunteer. Tap here for more information and to apply.

“We really appreciate the generosity of our health services and mental health volunteers. Needless to say, when people are struggling to cope with a disaster — – anything from a home fire to a flood or tornado — – immediate health and mental health support can be just as essential as food and shelter,” said Barb Thomas, Northern Ohio regional recovery manager for the Red Cross.

If you’re someone who’d like to help turn tragedy into hope in a rewarding opportunity to share your time and talents, visit redcross.org/volunteer to explore the wide variety of roles you can play, at home or away. And thank you!

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