Social workers find disaster mental health work rewarding

Nov 21, 2013

By Paul R. Pace, News staff

Social worker Jack Sarmanian says the personal rewards of being a disaster mental health worker far outweigh the challenges.


The Maine resident was among a group of disaster mental health workers with the American Red Cross deployed to Moore, Okla., in May.

A devastating EF-5 tornado ravaged the surrounding community, resulting in 25 deaths and more than 100 injuries. Survivors of the storm emerged to discover entire neighborhoods flattened and more than 1,000 homes destroyed. A multiple agency resource center was quickly established to help survivors heal from their many losses.

“What was most amazing as I worked with these people — men, women, children of all ethnic backgrounds, faiths, cultures and beliefs — was that they thanked me ‘for being (here) from Maine to help us,’” Sarmanian said.

His deployment lasted 12 days, during which he provided storm victims with encouragement, grief counseling and healing.

“I went to Oklahoma as a Red Cross volunteer and returned home having witnessed humility, caring and strength that I could not have imagined,” said Sarmanian, who also served as a disaster mental health volunteer to victims of tornado-ravaged communities in Minnesota and Missouri. “It’s gratifying and meaningful. You meet tremendous people. It was a privilege for me to be involved.”

Sarmanian is among the thousands of social workers and other mental health professionals who volunteer their special skill sets to aid people through agencies such as the Red Cross.

Another social worker with disaster mental health experience is Susan Pease Banitt, a licensed clinical social worker in Portland, Ore. She served with the Red Cross as a disaster mental health worker after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left thousands of families displaced and in need of relocation across the U.S.


She noted that she liked the work because of the immediacy of need and being able to help people in the moment.

“I’m also very aware that the more help people receive in the aftermath of a terrible event or disaster, the less likely they are to suffer post-traumatic stress,” Pease Banitt said.

She previously worked on a joint project of FEMA and the Department of Mental Health in Boston to provide crisis counseling after a major storm in 1991, known as the “perfect storm.”

“That was a very rewarding and educational experience,” she said. “Such a small amount of help was so deeply appreciated.”

From the November 2013 NASW News. NASW members can read the full story after logging in.