Digital Volunteers and Disaster Stress

“You can’t patch a wounded soul with a Band-Aid.” – Michael Connelly

In 2005, I came back from a disaster deployment during Hurricane Katrina changed in a lot of ways. For six months after I left New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, I was inexplicably angry; there was an invisible, ever present chip on my shoulder. I almost punched a man in Santa Cruz for merely overhearing him talk about the hurricane in a restaurant. My long-term relationship withered, and then died in the middle of grief and anger that I could hardly put words to. As a disaster responder for many years, I was prepared and knew the signs of disaster stress, and yet there I was flailing around. I couldn’t talk to anybody because hardly anybody I knew in California was directly impacted by the storm. They’d all seen it on TV. I was in the middle of an abandoned, flooded New Orleans. How could they possibly relate?

Still, with time, things got better, even though certain sights and sounds could (and sometimes still do) trigger very strong emotions indeed.

In 2010, I spent four months doing remote support for our response efforts in Haiti after the M7.0 earthquake there. Every waking hour I had during January through April was devoted, in some way or form, to Haiti. Even though I never left Northern California, I was intimately tied to the ground in Port-Au-Prince. I was on the phone, on the Internet, configuring and shipping equipment and technology that was needed by the rescue and recovery efforts. My colleagues were actually on the ground, there and I was able to sleep in my own bed every night of that response. And yet there I was feeling disaster stress, feeling overwhelmed, utterly tired, engaging in risky behavior that was quite unlike me in the off hours.

These are two disasters I’ve been involved with. One had me on the ground, and for the other, I was remote to the emergency. In both cases, I had various signs and symptoms of disaster stress. But my experiences working during Haiti relief reinforced the idea that even virtual disaster responders can experience disaster stress that isn’t virtual at all. [For the record, I’m going to avoid the use of the  term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for this article, which is a clinical definition, and one I am not qualified to confer on myself or anyone else for that matter – remember folks, you don’t self-diagnose!]

Society’s understanding of traumatic stress has been getting better over the years – more understanding of the types and management of trauma has been helped by the focus put on veterans returning from recent conflict around the world, survivors of various forms of abuse, survivors from catastrophes such as a natural or man-made disaster. The American Red Cross, for example, reports that 1/3 of disaster volunteers report some signs of disaster stress, even if the individual’s personal volunteer experience was positive. But less well understood are the effects of these events on people who aren’t even there. Our hyperconnected world allows us to experience trauma regardless of time and distance. For many years after the September 11 attacks, American news channels would re-air their real-time coverage of that day on the anniversary of those attacks. One could choose to relive that day with all the horror “as it happened.” More recently, when the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing happened, it was nearly impossible to escape CCTV footage shown over and over again of the explosions and the immediate aftermath the mass casualty situation. Recent studies have shown that this “saturation coverage” can increase disaster stress in those who otherwise have no immediate connection to the disaster:

“In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, four studies demonstrated associations between viewing television coverage of the attacks and (self-reported) posttraumatic stress symptomatology. Ahern et al.found a 2.3 times greater odds of probable posttraumatic stress disorder in the group that watched television most.” source

I believe that most current “digital disaster volunteers” got their start in this nascent domain in or around the time of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.  Many operate in ad-hoc communities and relatively small non-profits.  Few came into this area with pre-existing training in crisis operations.  Indeed, one of the great benefits is that the technology has empowered literally anyone with an Internet connection to get involved.  Anyone can get involved in good faith, but few have the support resources needed to identify disaster stress, and there may be few avenues of getting help.  Since most digital volunteers are operating by themselves in coffeeshops, in homes or other venues, the possibility truly exists of these individuals slipping through the cracks, their inner trauma unacknowledged and silent.  Contrast this to the crew of a fire engine, who may have three or more colleagues immediately available who “get it” and with whom one could feel more comfortable discussing what just happened.  Aside from the negative impact to the individual and their quality of life, as people who want to encourage digital volunteers in disasters, it doesn’t serve our purposes either when we silently lose previously enthusiastic volunteers and we fail to build that cadre of trained, experienced people for the next emergency.  It hurts us by making capacity building that much harder.

As a community, we need to come together and help create mechanisms that enable individuals to identify disaster related stress in themselves and others they come into contact with (such as their fellow volunteers!) We also need to identify actions that individuals can take to support themselves, their colleagues and others who may experience disaster-related stress. Lastly, we need to make it okay to get help. Many digital disaster volunteers may minimize their symptoms and feelings because, after all, they weren’t on-the-ground. By changing the conversation and saying that ALL disaster responders are potentially susceptible to disaster stress, we help minimize the stigma that many may feel around disaster stress and mental health more generally.

I’d invite readers to check out the training presentation I put together for our team at work a few years ago on the subject – other organizations are free to leverage that content if they find it useful.

Most importantly, whether we are in person or remote, we must never lose sight of the fact that while we choose to be technology responders, disasters are first and foremost human emergencies, not technological ones.  By remaining compassionate and understanding with ourselves and others we work with and respond to, we remain connected to our humanity in the midst of crisis and chaos.

3 thoughts on “Digital Volunteers and Disaster Stress

  1. Excellent blogpost Rakesh and I can certainly recognise certain points. Having stepped into the world of disaster response green as grass back in 2010 following the Haiti earthquake I have certainly experienced the visceral effect of working in this field.
    I’m personally not big on emotion and abhor the “therapy trend” but this work impacts everyone in one way or another and after each deployment you need some time to adjust.
    Pointing out that remote responders are also affected is a very valid point; seeing dead bodies on the ground can affect you as much (although in a different way) as the sometimes frustration of remotely responding when I find myself quite often banging my head of the desk because distance, time and sometimes language & cultural barriers make the work even harder then when you’re on the ground.
    Mental health is currently a hot topic in disaster response circles and in addition to the people who we are helping we should not forget ourselves. I have seen too many people work themselves into the ground during deployments. Remember, when you burn out you are no good to anyone including yourself!
    Don’t let the stress accumulate, know when it’s time to step back and get some downtime.

    Evert Bopp.
    Disaster Tech Lab
    Emergency Communication Services

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