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Mental healthcare professionals on job in disaster’s wake

Jackson — In the two months before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Coast, Lori Gregory had been working with professionals from the Boston Trauma Center on a training protocol for 50 social workers dealing with the victims of violent crime.

“We were piloting a program in the Midtown area because it has the highest violent crime rate in the metro area,” said the trauma care coordinator for Catholic Charities in the Jackson diocese.

The focus of the event, scheduled for September 13-15 at the 930 Blues Café, was expanded when Dr. Robert Macy, the Boston Trauma Center’s director, called the Tuesday after Labor Day and offered to train 150 people in post-traumatic stress management to work with survivors of natural disasters such as Katrina. The event was moved to Mikhail’s Northgate, and 100 participants were enrolled in four days.

Such efforts are indicative of the response of the mental health industry to the impact of Hurricane Katrina — a wide range of groups have started to implement plans to help survivors cope with the inevitable stresses such an event can cause.

One of the largest programs yet proposed is Project Recovery, a joint effort by a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration through the Mississippi Department of Mental Health.

“Project Recovery will provide crisis counseling services to individuals and families in shelters statewide without any qualifying screening process,” said Robert Latham, director of Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). “Project Recovery will provide outreach services throughout the community, public education services and information and crisis counseling referral services.”

Those wishing to apply for services can call a toll-free 24/7 help line and be connected with a counselor who can not only offer immediate information, but also provide applicants with information and contacts for local support services and assistance.

Not only are agencies attempting to reach out to individual victims, a number of clinics, therapists and nonprofits are attempting to aid employees of businesses affected by Katrina.

Dr. Jean Dabit, LPC, said she has been contacted by businesses to come and conduct crisis intervention seminars for their employees.

“It’s like psychological first aid,” she said of the seminars.

Issues discussed included assistance in coping with loss, depression and anxiety and discussion of post-traumatic stress disorder, Dabit added.

Kip Bowen, licensed professional counselor at MEACares in Ridgeland, said that his office manages employee assistance programs for companies across the state, and they are now offering what they call critical incident stress debriefing to some of the companies they serve that were affected by the disaster.

His office has identified three groups of workers that may need a great deal of mental health support, including first responders who were on the scene during and immediately after the disaster; those deployed to the area in the aftermath who will be returning from it after the immediate crisis is over; and those who live and work in the area on a permanent basis.

“(They are) the people who work a 10-hour day, and then don’t have anywhere to go to because their home is gone,” Bowen said.

Mental health support mechanisms are also important to the volunteers and professionals working with the high volume of hurricane victims still residing in the Jackson area.

Some groups are gearing up to be able to react more quickly once the next disaster strikes, according to Rick Stark, assistant pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church.

His facility recently served as a training site for lay people to be certified as disaster counselors. Plans are to keep a database of people who complete the training and activate them whenever they can be used to help in a disaster situation, Stark said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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