By Joy Calleja, SIOP Blogger
More than a thousand lost their lives during the massive flooding brought about by Typhoon Sendong – the tropical storm that hit the Philippine cities of Cagayan de Oro (CDO) and Iligan in 2011. It was a few days before Christmas when the news of Sendong reached those of us living in Manila. With it came web and TV footage of all forms of suffering imaginable.
I went to CDO twice with my colleagues from the University, four-days after Sendong and again two weeks later. It was already heartbreaking to have seen images of the disaster through various media but it was even more painful to hear stories from the survivors. Most tragic for me were the stories of mothers and fathers who desperately tried to hold on to their children as they were being swept away in the rushing floodwaters and eventually losing them – burying them in mass graves days after or worse not knowing where they are even today. However, survivors also shared amazing stories of resilience such as the 8-year old boy that saved his younger sibling by carrying the child up a hill out of harms way, only to head back down to help others and eventually having to hold onto a pig (found to be great swimmers during Sendong) to survive as the flooding water quickly rose.
During my time in CDO I saw the extent of peoples’ courage, selflessness and generosity while training the disaster responders who showed up in overwhelming numbers. The main goal of our teams was to conduct Brief Crisis Counseling Workshops for responders (mostly non-psychologists) who were willing and capable of providing psychological first-aid to Sendong survivors. We also aimed to help facilitate the planning of post-disaster organizational initiatives of Xavier University and eventually conduct debriefing sessions for the responders themselves.
In the process, the team and I realized the value of our I-O background in being effective responders. As I-O psychologists, we were able to draw on our training in adult education when helping design and facilitate the Brief Crisis Counseling Workshops. In particular we knew that the workshop had to first consider the general profile of the participants and therefore begin by assessing their different dialects and varying needs and competencies. It was our understanding of organizational systems that helped us realize the importance of preparing a plan for deploying volunteers following the workshop. These two and other hands on experiences throughout the response efforts brought about new insights on just how important I-O psychologists’ can be in the response process.
I-O expertise in documenting, planning, and implementing organizational efforts is much needed, and has the potential to be an invaluable asset for disaster preparedness and response. Whether psychologists are part of the organization as human resource practitioners or volunteers, they can facilitate the giving of material and psychosocial support. They can do so during times of great need by increasing the effectiveness of organizational processes, or helping communities and organizations prepare to handle future disasters by designing and facilitating disaster response evaluations – e.g. assessing critical incidents to identify opportunities for improvement and adjustment to future disaster response strategies.
I-O psychologists also have a place in helping employees cope and ultimately recover from disasters. Managers cannot assume that it will be business-as-usual when employees return to work after such traumatic experiences. Therefore organizations can support employees throughout the grieving and recovery process. Based on our experience, simultaneous small-group debriefing sessions proved fruitful, with groups being facilitated by volunteer employees who completed a half-day Brief Crisis Counseling Workshop. Further assistance can also be provided to employees and families gravely affected, such as access to expert counseling/clinical help.
What I have shared here are my personal and team members’ experiences and thoughts on the potential impact as I-O psychologists in disaster preparedness and response efforts. Unfortunately I think there is still a widespread assumption both within psychology as well as the general public that disaster response in general and psychosocial response in particular is solely for Clinical and Counseling psychologists. However, as experienced in Sendong and in previous calamities that struck my country, this assumption is gravely mistaken. I-O psychologists were, and continue to be invaluable assets to the disaster response and preparedness efforts.
I would like to hear your thoughts and experiences so that together we can help build a complete picture of the role I-O can have in disaster management and response efforts.