News Local/State

Who’s Caring For The Caregivers? Study Finds Social Workers Need Support During Disaster Relief

Brian Hajeski, 41, of Brick, N.J., reacts after looking at debris of a home that washed up on to the Mantoloking Bridge the morning after superstorm Sandy rolled through, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Mantoloking, N.J.

Brian Hajeski, 41, of Brick, N.J., reacts after looking at debris of a home that washed up on to the Mantoloking Bridge the morning after superstorm Sandy rolled through, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Mantoloking, N.J. Julio Cortez/AP

Social workers, caregivers, and teachers are often on the frontlines after disasters, helping victims cope and bring their lives back together.

But there’s one part of that equation that frequently goes overlooked: 

“We often don’t think of caring for the care providers,” said Tara Powell, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois.

Powell served as lead researcher for a study released last week which examined the effects of the Caregivers Journey of Hope workshop administered by Save the Children. The study found that caregivers often suffer significant risks of disaster-related distress, even as they attempt to help victims cope with similar symptoms.

In particular, it found that new social workers often face the highest levels of risk.

“They have less of a capacity to cope,” Powell said. “They haven’t been in the field as long, so they haven’t actually developed healthy coping strategies to handle working directly in the field.”

The workshop takes caregivers through four questions of dealing with stress: first, what is it and where does it come from? Second, how do we experience it? Third, how can we cope with it? And finally, how will we support each other in the future?

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the study found, Caregivers Journey of Hope participants reported knowing better how to cope with stress symptoms, as well as actual reductions in stress levels.

“Many of the participants have expressed, ‘This is so important because we feel like we’re heard and we feel like our needs are being met,’” Powell said. “It’s a start to be able to address the needs of these care providers.”

The study was published in the journal Traumatology of the American Psychological Association.

Powell spoke with Illinois Public Media about the study.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

TP: It was very complicated to be on the ground after Katrina. I was a new social worker and my first introduction to social work was working in the public schools right when they opened. There was a lot of chaos there. 

We were working a lot with children in the schools. And the teachers and parents said, "This is great, you have all of this stuff for children. but we're really struggling too." And we were like, "Okay, well, what do you need?" And they're like, "We need something to help us deal with the stress of the hurricane." And so we said, okay, and we worked with Tulane University to develop the Caregivers Journey of Hope. 

JD: How do you go about developing a program that's more universal than just talking to one person at a time?

TP: So it's group work. The program is all done within groups. And we talk about very general issues. So we recognize that anybody who has went through a significant traumatic experience such as a hurricane and been displaced, will probably be stressed. 

Most people experience stress. So we talk about stress in a more general sense and then help people identify how they experienced stress. And so they can tie that to themselves in different ways. So for example, some people experience stress through physical symptoms. Some people experience stress through emotional symptoms, like crying. And so we give psychoeducation, or education about what are common stress responses, and then let the people who participate in the program really take those in and think about them and think about how it affects them. 

And then, also, we do the same thing with coping. Everybody copes. It can be healthy coping, or it can be unhealthy coping. So healthy coping can be exercise, talking to people, expressing your feelings. And then there's unhealthy coping, which can be substance use. And so there's all sorts of different coping mechanisms that people have. So we have people tie the type of coping that they do to themselves in their stress responses. And that helps them individualize the program to them, but also make it more general to the wider population.

JD: In terms of those stress factors that are maybe different for different types of people, do you find that there are more similar ones when it comes to the caregivers?

TP: One very common stressor that they experience is they don't have enough time for themselves. So they're giving, giving, giving, and then they don't have the capacity to take a step back and say, "Okay, how can I care for myself?" 

In terms of stress responses, one of the biggest things with care providers is they have these multiple stressors. So they're caring for people, they may have experienced a disaster. And then they also have, you know, whatever's going on at home. So they might have children that they're caring for. Elder parents, a lot of people talk about aging parents, they're caring for as well.

JD: Are social workers less effective when they're stressed?

TP: It's really hard to care for other people when you are so stressed out. So you're not able to have your full awareness on the people you're helping if you're not helping yourself. So if you're having these heightened stress symptoms all the time, you really are not as in tune with the people you're helping. 

And so yes, I would say - I don't think there's been a study on their effectiveness, but there have been a lot of studies on burnout and how it affects workplace performance. And that shows that effectiveness goes down.

JD: Do you see Caregivers Journey of Hope being adopted more now? Is it spreading?

TP: Yeah! So it actually has been delivered in many places throughout the US in response to Hurricanes Harvey and Maria. It's been in Texas and Puerto Rico, and in Florida, in California from wildfires, during Sandy Hook, the school shooting there, and also after some earthquakes in New Zealand.

 So it's been adopted fairly well. And that's really exciting to see because it can help the wider population of care providers who might not always receive the support that they need.