WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Doing a Katniss Everdeen

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DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 26 Dec) – To close the 7th Visayas-Mindanao Psychology Convention last 14 December 2013, the 600-strong crowd applauded when I said,

“When dark times are upon the land, we do a Katniss Everdeen: We volunteer.”

A day after Christmas, Team Yolanda 6 flies out to Tacloban City to work with 50 members of the Philippine National Police assigned in various towns in Leyte. Before heading home on Sunday, they will be passing through Ormoc to service the request of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) for psychosocial support to its workforce that had been engaged in clearing roads and restoring vital lifelines in the last eight weeks.

This deployment is part of the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services (COPERS) emergency disaster response in the aftermath of the strongest typhoon ever recorded. Our aim is to enhance coping and resilience of duty bearers and other community-based resources and lend them the skills to deliver psychosocial interventions to disaster-affected populations.

In the last few weeks, COPERS had sent volunteer teams to work with soldiers, development NGOs, government offices, and faith-based organizations. First responders and duty bearers all. We intend our interventions to de-escalate distress enough for people to restore psychological balance, think clearly, and plan for what needs to be done in the long haul ahead towards community recovery.

Post-disaster mental health and psychosocial support services (MHPSS) is a much-neglected aspect of disaster response. Our recent experience with Sendong, Pablo, and Zamboanga have brought home the fact that while there is some semblance of integrated response to material relief distribution, MHPSS delivery is seemingly a free-for-all, with no centralized command and supervision of appropriate services. By that I mean that like all other disaster responses, MHPSS should be a theoretically grounded application, with particular attention to community context, disaster timeline, and professional qualifications of the ones who deliver. To fail in any is to risk more psychological injury.

As it is, the MHPSS cluster is an ad hoc structure under the Department of Health, often manned by whoever is available from the regular staff. It is often headed by someone who does not necessarily have the qualifications or skills for psychosocial needs assessment and organizing a network of responders, much less in harmonizing their efforts to prevent retraumatization of affected populations. That makes him very dependent on directives from the Manila head office and subject to special budget releases that take forever. Worse, his regular job often has him buried in paper already.

There is very little help there for independent organizations like COPERS. While we may have the warm bodies, capability, and a little leeway for mobility, we often have to work out on our own how best to be economical, efficient, and effective in our efforts to help communities in crisis.

As a second-stage emergency response, the Incident Command System MHPSS has been farmed out to various sectors. Evacuation centers are the turf of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. School-aged children are to be handled by the Department of Education. Women are a special population to be serviced by the UNFPA. Duty bearers are the responsibility of the DOH. Community needs are to be met by international and local humanitarian NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Catholic Relief Services (CRS), UNICEF, Save The Children (STC) and Plan International – Philippines. MHPSS not being among the core competencies of these organizations, they are encouraged to tap local capacities in order to deliver.

Where does that exactly leave local MHPSS resources? In conscience, we at COPERS cannot sit around and wait for these organizations to fumble through their needs assessment and determine what is needed where. Not when there are people in need and the situation remains fluid. Indeed, as the disaster overwhelms the system, the breakdown is likely to compound frustration and distress on the ground. It is when people especially need help to calm down and think out alternative options to help themselves.

When Yolanda 6 comes back, COPERS shall be sending out Yolanda 7 to UP Tacloban. Team Yolanda 7 will be the last deployment under our program for emergency psychosocial response for Yolanda-affected populations. We hope that targeting the populations we have served in these seven deployments would have created the multiplier effect to capacitate crucial sectors – security, public services, community workers, and academe – working in Leyte and Samar to address the MHPSS needs of typhoon-affected communities.

I am aware that having responded earlier than when the MHPSS cluster in the Tacloban Incident Command Center could pick up on what we are doing and why, our efforts are not likely to show up in the official figures for service delivery. But, a deed unseen or unacknowledged is nonetheless greater for having been performed because it was necessary.

To all selfless COPERS volunteers who have heeded the call, God bless you all. May 2014 be a kinder year to the world.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Gail Ilagan heads the Psychology Department and the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services at the Ateneo de Davao University.)

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