The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 29, 2011

RESOURCE: Teams deliver ‘psychological first aid’ on the street

By Emily Younker

JOPLIN, Mo. — When Daryl Whitecotton came to his front door on Wednesday, he was greeted by his new friend, Susan Myers.

For a few minutes, Myers drilled him on his post-tornado living conditions. Did he need more ice? More water? Any help in getting some of his utilities hooked up?

And then came a question Whitecotton likely wasn’t expecting: Had she given him a stress ball yet?

“I ain’t got stress,” he joked, accepting the red ball and squeezing it in his right hand as he talked.

Whitecotton is one of about 21,000 people across Joplin who have received “psychological and emotional first aid” from Healing Joplin, a collaborative effort led by Ozark Center to help tornado survivors put their lives back together, said Debbie Fitzgerald, project manager.

Forty-two community crisis workers are walking the ravaged streets 12 hours each day, visiting with survivors, volunteers and cleanup crews in the wake of an EF-5 tornado that destroyed or damaged about one-third of the city.

“What’s different about this is that most disaster survivors do not identify themselves as being in need of professional mental health services, because they feel their reactions are normal given the circumstances, which is absolutely correct,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re providing outreach by going to them and connecting to them.”

Fitzgerald said as much as 90 percent of the population affected by the tornado will recover emotionally on their own. Her teams are trying to reach the 10 percent who might not otherwise receive the help they need to get back on their feet.

She said common symptoms of lingering emotional or psychological problems include being nervous or anxious; irregular sleeping or eating patterns; and, in children, regression in developmental milestones.

Part of what her teams try to do is explain why people react differently to disasters, and offer suggestions to help and link individuals and families to appropriate services and resources. Other times, she said, they just pass out water, informational pamphlets or children’s toys.

“People are very busy with a lot of details to put their lives back in order, and they just may not think or realize there is relief,” Fitzgerald said.

Team leader Stephanie Meek said she has encountered many people who are fatigued, sad, irritable or enduring physical pains. But much of what the teams do is listen to people as they tell stories related to the tornado.

“Everyone who is in this city has a story to tell, and part of what we’ve been doing is listening,” she said. “Generally, people have been reluctant to talk about what they’ve lost and (are) more grateful with what they came away with.”

Reaction to their efforts has been positive, she said.

“We rarely have encountered anyone who wasn’t willing to talk to us,” she said. “I think a smile and a listening ear is very appealing.”

Whitecotton, 58, has stayed in his house in the tornado-damaged neighborhood of 22nd Street and Moffet Avenue since the day after the tornado, when he firmly planted an American flag in his front yard. More than two months later, water service has been hooked up, but he is still without electricity.

That means the air-conditioning unit he recently installed is powerless, providing no comfort in 100-degree heat. His black Labrador, Rupert, did not survive the heat wave. Any food that is delivered to Whitecotton’s door must be eaten almost immediately. It otherwise will spoil.

Whitecotton first met a Healing Joplin team several weeks ago when they knocked on his front door. Myers and other team members have brought food, ice, information and smiles to his door nearly every day since then to make sure he’s OK.

“They’re just doing what they need to do to keep this old man alive,” he said. “It also gives me somebody to talk to.”

Whitecotton said he appreciates the help he’s been given by Healing Joplin, and he continues to accept it to get by. On Wednesday, his request was simple: a sandwich and some potato chips. Myers assured him that would be possible.

The Healing Joplin program is funded by a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

For those who have not met with the team, the 24-hour Ozark Center crisis hot line is available at 347-7720, 347-7070 or 800-247-0661.

Additional support

U.S. Navy Chief Stanley “Mike” Wade will discuss his experience with post-traumatic stress disorder in talks this weekend. Wade was diagnosed with — and has since overcome — the disorder following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and several military deployments.

Wade’s presentation is set for 10 a.m. today in the Justice Center at the Missouri Southern State University, 3950 E. Newman Road. Residents who think they might be experiencing psychological effects from the tornado are encouraged to attend.