People Are Disaster Mental Health Volunteer’s Passion
By David Guth
American Red Cross Volunteer
Illinois farm boy Gary Price raised pigs and dreamed of being a highway patrolman. And then a minister. Ultimately, he would receive a doctorate in Counseling, Personnel Services and Educational Psychology and go on to serve 28 years on the faculty of the University of Kansas. While some may see this as an unusual career path, it made perfect sense to Price.
“I knew I wanted to work with people,” he said. “My working with people has been a theme throughout my life.”
Now retired and living on a farm outside of Lawrence, Kansas, Professor Emeritus Price has continued that passion by serving as an American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer since 2003. In that role, he is there to help people on what, for many, are the worst days of their lives.
“We are there to help people get through the crisis and trauma of the event,” Price said. “Sometimes we are the only people there who have a smile on their face.”
According to the American Counseling Association, it is not unusual that people exposed to traumatic events begin experiencing intense fear, helplessness and hopelessness. It is also common for some to want to avoid remembering or feeling things that remind them of the experience. However, it is important to note that the scale of traumatic disasters varies. There may be a lot of news coverage of major events, such as hurricanes and tornado outbreaks. However, most of the 60,000 emergencies that the Red Cross responds to each year are local, personal disasters such as home fires.
The effects of these disasters, physical and psychological, are often not immediately apparent.
“People have trouble coping with the new normal after a storm,” said Renée Funk, who manages hurricane response teams for the Centers for Disease Control. In a 2017 interview with Politico, she said, “Many have lost everything, including their jobs. Some may have lost loved ones, and now they have to rebuild their lives.
“They’re faced with a lot of barriers, including mental illness itself,” Funk said.
The psychological impact of disasters may extend beyond those directly affected. Counseling Today has reported that traumatic events can trigger memories of prior bad experiences and/or create a sense of survivor’s guilt.
Price said it is not unusual for clients to appear angry. “Don’t take the anger personally,” he said. “Just acknowledge that it is a common experience people have and say ‘how can I help?’”
In addition to responding to local and regional disasters in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, Price has been deployed to several national disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2017 mass shooting incident in Las Vegas. He said his most difficult deployment was to the Florida panhandle in 2018 following the landfall of Hurricane Michael, the first Category 5 hurricane to strike the continental United States since Andrew in 1992. The devastation of communities, infrastructure and communications made an organized response extremely difficult.
While the working conditions were difficult, Price said Red Cross disaster relief volunteers maintained a positive attitude. He said that volunteers are often “the first line of contact” with people in a disaster area. “If you get down,” Price said, “who do they look to?” He also noted that the first of the 12 Psychological First Aid guidelines issued by the Red Cross is “take care of yourself.” Volunteers are encouraged to periodically step away from the situation to give them a physical and mental break from the stress that comes with a disaster response. “If you become overwhelmed emotionally, then you can’t be effective in helping others.”
For Price, life on his Kansas farm helps him remain centered. “The animals keep me healthy,” he said. “They don’t have meetings or politics and are happy as long as I have food for them.”
Volunteering has brought the retired college professor many rewards. “After they retire, so many professionals want to give back in some way, keep active and travel, “ Price said. “You meet so many people from such a variety of backgrounds – and that is really great.”
That makes volunteering a perfect opportunity for a “people person” like Price.