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Psychological Preparedness for Expats

Dr. Rick Williamson
Consulting Psychologist, Headington Institute, 2013.


Witnessing mass devastation first-hand affects even the most experienced professional crisis responders. The growing numbers of non-career and volunteer responders only accentuates the need for psychological preparation for future crises. However, responders with personal connections to and intimate understanding of a disaster-affected community should take particular care when they engage in a response to that community.

On the one-hand, they bring a tireless motivation and a deep cultural understanding that can be invaluable to the relief effort. For example, because they understand the cultures of both the impacted community and that of the responders, they may facilitate alignment between the response effort and the community. However, the individual’s personal connection may also predispose them to additional stress beyond that experienced by other responders. Specifically, destruction of personally meaningful places (i.e. destruction of one’s old neighborhood, secondary school, church, etc.) can elicit complex feelings of nostalgia and grief when one sees their barely recognizable remains.

Affected communities may gather together apart from responders for collective coping. The responder with strong ties to the community may experience the need to join their community, but may be under security protocols that restrict such activity. The dichotomy between the abject conditions experienced by a community in the aftermath of disaster and the relatively “nicer” accommodations afforded responders may trigger dissonance or guilt in the individual who is likely acutely aware of this difference.

Finally, these experiences are often unique to the individual with community ties and are not those shared by others in the response group. This may add the feeling of isolation to the psychological strains listed above.

Some strategies that may be helpful for the person responding to disaster in their community could include the following:

  • Intentionally seek out colleagues who also have a history and significant experience with the affected community. It may be a comfort to share important stories and reminisce about places that no longer physically exist.
  • Within the constraints of your response team’s security protocol, develop and utilize as broad a range of social support as possible. This support should include persons from the community to the greatest extent permitted. This facilitates a richer web of social connections (i.e. with members of the community, community expatriates, etc.). Research and experience shows that we cannot overestimate the social support’s power to sustain us in the face of trial and tragedy.
  • Finally, take time to learn about the various response agencies before you volunteer to deploy. There are a multitude of agencies and they possess different agency cultures. Look for an agency that is well organized and that you trust. You should also take note of agencies that are respected by your significant communities. Ask questions of agencies such as, “What kind of presence and activities have you had in the particular region in the past?”, and “What is the representation of diversity among its staff from a particular region/community?”

Even if agencies do not have a history within a particular region, those with a good reputation are probably more likely to engage impacted communities with dignity and respect. This, will lead to less dissonance in the response experience for volunteers with ties to the community targeted for the agency’s relief effort.

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