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Footnotes: Dr. Ann-Marie Neale on Disaster and Trauma

Photo courtesy of A. Neale

Photo courtesy of A. Neale

Dr. Ann-Marie Neale will offer a Residential Institute at the Graduate Theological Foundation from July 20-24 on “Disasters and Community Trauma: The Emotional and Psychological Needs of Survivors and First Responders.”

Dr. Neale is a Diplomate of The Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy and serves as Karen Horney Professor of Counseling and Psychology at the GTF. Students attending her Institute may earn credits toward their degree or may apply the Institute as a Non-Project Option. The registration deadline is June 1, and space is limited. Visit this Institute’s webpage for more information and to download a registration form.


What are some of the most important things that first responders understand about how to tackle the treatment of survivors of disaster and community trauma?

Dr. Ann-Marie Neale:

While there are many important things that first responders need to consider when treating survivors of disasters or other community trauma, probably the most important factor is that survivors are experiencing normal reactions, such as grief, confusion and sadness, to an abnormal event. Most of them will not need nor seek traditional mental health services. With that said, another important factor to consider is that special needs populations, such as the very old or very young, are often more vulnerable to feelings of anxiety and helplessness. Finally, the reactions of survivors will be different depending on the type of disaster or community trauma. For example, natural disasters such as blizzards or hurricanes are not caused by other humans; technological disasters can be caused by negligence or even actual sabotage; acts of terror are deliberate acts meant to instill psychological distress. Survivors of natural disasters usually experience less anger and more ability to recover from the event than those who are also dealing with the fact that the disaster or trauma was deliberately caused.


How can first responders care for themselves psychologically and emotionally during the aftermath of disaster and trauma when they are responsible for rescuing and caring for others?

AN: This is a very important question as not only will first responders be unable to do their jobs effectively if they become overwhelmed, fatigued or emotionally distraught, these distressing reactions may make them unable or unwilling to do this much needed work in the future. One of the first things that comes to mind is the importance of training and education prior to becoming a first responder. Many police and fire departments have training sessions. Volunteer organizations such as the American Red Cross or Salvation Army also provide training prior to allowing someone to be on the disaster response team. Another very important thing is for first responders to have time during the day when they are able to not only get needed rest, but also to gather together and share a meal or simply sit and chat with one another. This is such an important question – one that will be discussed in more detail during the upcoming Residential Institute.


Can you discuss briefly the importance of environment and “non-essential items,” a topic you touch on in your May 2013 blog post, in the treatment of survivors?

AN: For most of the survivors of disasters or other community trauma, the only mental health treatment they will need or receive occurs at the site of the incident in their neighborhood, in a Red Cross or other shelter, or in their own homes. It is important for first responders to understand the unique characteristics of the survivor’s environment. For example, some neighborhoods are close knit, with neighbors knowing and helping one another; while in other neighborhoods, people are more isolated and may not even know each other by name.

Non-essential items are those things that are not usually thought of as necessary for survival. Food, clothing and shelter are essential items; whereas, such items as toys and computers are usually not essential to survival. Sometimes, however, an item that is not “essential” in a strict sense may be vitally important for the survivor. I shared an example in my 2013 blog about a mother who was distraught because her mentally handicapped 30 year old daughter would not eat or drink because her “baby doll” that she used to “feed with a bottle” was destroyed in the flood. Dolls were not considered “essential items;” however, I was able to get a Red Cross voucher that allowed this mother to purchase a doll at a local department store. Seeing her “baby doll” again brought her daughter such joy that she immediately began to eat and drink. Because of this and other similar situations, the American Red Cross Mental Health Teams now have a “compassionate relief fund” available to use for such situations.


What is your perspective on the current nature of treatment of disaster and trauma survivors? Is there one organization, community or government doing a better job at providing effective or innovative treatment than others?

AN: I believe there has been much progress in the understanding and treatment of disaster and trauma survivors, although there is always room for improvement. Thankfully, there are many organizations, such as the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, local and state wide religious organizations and churches, local Mental Health agencies, and national and state governmental agencies such as police departments, fire departments and the national Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Most of these agencies have improved the educational opportunities for first responders so that they can provide the best care to survivors. Having been a part of the American Red Cross Disaster Response Team, I have seen firsthand the wonderful work they do; however, I could not single out one particular organization as doing better than others. The crucial aspect that helps the groups individually offer better services to survivors is cooperation with each other. When agencies operate independently without knowledge or appreciation of the unique ways other agencies are able to provide needed assistance, survivors and the community at large suffers. Disaster and Community Trauma response is the one area where I truly believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


Read more about Dr. Neale’s July 20-24 Residential Institute, and register by June 1 to secure your place!

4 Responses to Footnotes: Dr. Ann-Marie Neale on Disaster and Trauma

    • GTF says:

      Rev. Wolfe, thanks for your question. We typically do not provide scholarships for participants on a particular course such as an Institute, but rather for degree programs. However, you may feel free to contact the Office of the Bursar directly for more information. We appreciate your interest.

  • I have been leading post trauma training and retreats for first responders at the Franbcsican Center. A Tampa Police and FBI chaplain for 10 years and witness the daily stress and assiting in fnerals of our slain police officers the need for a “retreat” in a beautiful setting has improved the quality of life for our first responders…..Sr. Annie

    • Dear Sr. Annie,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I could not agree more! Post trauma training and retreats are much needed by and highly beneficial for First Responders. When I lived in North Carolina, I was a member of a Disaster Response Team that offered group processing for first responders. It was obvious that they greatly appreciated this opportunity and it was certainly rewarding for all of us who gave of our time and talent.

      And speaking as one who has attended many spiritual retreats at the Franciscan Center in Tampa, Florida, I feel sure that first responders cannot help but benefit from the opportunity to “come away and rest awhile” at this beautiful, peaceful and refreshing setting on the Hillsborough River! I hope that retreat centers in other geographic areas are also able to offer this opportunity to those who serve in the front lines of disasters and community trauma.

      Dr. Ann-Marie Neale