Detroit Regional Chamber > Member News > Red Cross Mental Health Services Bring Hope to Those Who are Coping With a Disaster

Red Cross Mental Health Services Bring Hope to Those Who are Coping With a Disaster

May 28, 2024
DETROIT (May 21, 2024) – When a disaster happens, like the tornadoes that struck Southwest Michigan on May 7, the American Red Cross is there to help people in need by providing food and shelter, emergency relief supplies, and recovery assistance. These unexpected and sudden events can also bring psychological distress for those who are affected, as well as for workers and volunteers supporting a disaster relief operation.

The emotional impact of a disaster often leads to feelings of stress, uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety. To help people cope with these symptoms, the Red Cross provides professional mental health support as part of its portfolio of disaster response services.

“We use strategies to help people who are experiencing trauma. We keep our focus on the here and now and what they need to do to begin moving forward in their recovery,” said Helen Ostien, a Red Cross volunteer who leads mental health services for the Michigan Region. She is a retired social worker and registered nurse.

Mental health services became part of Red Cross disaster response services in 1992 to respond to the psycho-social needs of people affected by disaster, including Red Cross workers. Counseling is provided by disaster mental health volunteers who are master’s level licensed mental health professionals.

Services are not limited to major disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires, which have grown more extreme and intense in recent years (the Red Cross is responding to nearly twice as many large disasters as it did 10 years ago). Mental health volunteers also meet with individuals and families after home fires, ice storms, flooding situations and other local disasters.

“It’s surprising, the number of people who have had more than one home fire or had a fatality in a previous fire and now they are reliving the loss of a loved one,” Ostien said.

No matter the circumstance, the trauma of a disaster can linger for days, weeks, months and longer, Ostien said. People process their emotions individually, similarly like those grieving the loss of a loved one or friend.

“We expect people to have intense, emotional reactions. That’s normal,” said Ostien, who has counseled roughly 1,000 people throughout her Red Cross career. Her disaster deployments have included many hurricanes, including Katrina, Sandy and Harvey, 9/11, floods in Mississippi and other situations across the country.

“We worry a little bit about people who don’t react,” she said. “In the immediate aftermath, there are some who have a honeymoon effect or are very stoic and they are not so distressed. But then the reality starts setting in a little bit down the road.”

The aftermath of 9/11 was unique in so many ways. During the first of two deployments to New York, Ostien came to know a crane operator at the rubble of the World Trade Center Towers. The man was from out of state and came to New York to help clear the tons of debris. Ostien visited with the man on his lunch break.

“The stress and trauma for him came when they stopped the operations when they found human remains or suspected human remains,” Ostien said. “He would sit there, watching as they excavated the human remains. It really, really got to him. I met with him pretty much every day for several days. He shared so much. It just stayed with me because we might not always think of the need for equipment operators to receive services. And yet it’s pretty powerful the different ways people can be affected by these things emotionally.”

The Red Cross utilizes psychological first-aid strategies when counseling a person in the aftermath of a disaster. This evidenced-based approach creates a place of safety, connectedness and hope to reduce stress symptoms and put the person on the path to a healthy recovery.

“We help them to use their coping skills to start problem solving, to draw on their own resources like family support, community agencies and insurance, and to start thinking in hopeful ways of putting their lives back together,” Ostien said.

For families with children, Ostien said the Red Cross teaches parents on what signs to look for in their child’s behavior at home and at school, as well as ways to meet their needs for increased attention and reassurance after a disaster.

Unlike a mental health clinic or psychologist’s office, the Red Cross does not diagnose or provide treatment for mental health issues. For people in need of ongoing therapy, referrals are made to community resources for treatment.

“We want to offer them support and help them,” Ostien said. “But what we don’t want to do is create a therapeutic kind of liaison. We don’t want to foster dependency. We don’t want to make ourselves important enough that it’s going to lead to another loss because that’s not what we do.”

One referral Ostien made came during a deployment five months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. She was canvassing neighborhoods and talking to residents. She was struck by the story of a man who was living alone, away from his family who had moved north temporarily.

“I am losing my will to stay sober,” the man told Ostien, amid years of sobriety. The hurricane had driven his doctor’s practice and the local Alcoholics Anonymous program out of business, leaving him without his medication and sobriety support.

Luckily, Ostien could help. Earlier in the day, a local psychiatrist had called her to say he was re-opening his practice and encouraged her to share his name and contact information. The man made an appointment and was able to get his prescription refilled.

“That had an amazing impact on me,” Ostien said. “It’s all worth it. It makes you feel like you can be part of the solution. It’s a small difference, but it’s powerful.”


MEDIA CONTACT: David Olejarz / / 313-303-0606

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides comfort to victims of disasters; supplies about 40% of the nation’s blood; teaches skills that save lives; distributes international humanitarian aid; and supports veterans, military members and their families. The Red Cross is a nonprofit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to deliver its mission. For more information, please visit or, or follow us on social media.