Pioneering unit brings societies together for better psychosocial support

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Following the fires and earthquake in Chile, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has mobilized its Regional Response Unit specializing in psychosocial support for the first time. Bringing together expertise from the National Societies of Canada, Jamaica and Colombia, the unit will provide support for the emotional and psychological needs of those affected by the disasters in Valpariaso and Iquique.

Lina Villa, Health Delegate for Emergency for the Americas zone, said the unit would have immediate impact. “The goal is the coordination with the Chilean Red Cross in their planning and execution of activities to provide psychosocial support to affected people who are living in shelters and temporary accommodation because of the earthquake and fire,” she said.

The group is working in two teams to provide better coverage. One group headed to Valparaiso, while the other supports activities in northern Chile.

Psychosocial support is essential during and after a crisis, and can make a significant difference for a person who has experienced a traumatic event. Sophie Briand, team leader in Iquique, said emotional scars can last a lifetime. "The material part – houses, goods and personal things – are recoverable, while the loss of a loved one or the experience of danger can cause long-lasting trauma.”

Helping the helpers

As Red Cross volunteers work directly with those affected, or might themselves be affected by a disaster, they may also need psychosocial support.

"We have cases of volunteers who have been directly affected by the emergency of the fires, as well as their family or very close friends who were in danger or have lost everything,” said Jose Leber, team leader in Valparaiso. “The level of involvement is so much, that they do not want to return to the scene of the event.”

"The idea is that, in addition to helping people affected by both emergencies, we can prepare our volunteers and technicians in psychosocial support in a way that helps build the capacity of the National Society," says Maricela Huentemilla, National Health Director of the Chilean Red Cross.

This response unit has established work activities targeting all ages. "We have identified a lot of anxiety in children in shelters,” Sophie Briant says. “Their stability and balance must come primarily from parents, but the stress that parents experience as homelessness aggravates the uncertainty they face.”

The Regional Response Unit concept allows National Societies to pool expertise under coordination from the host society and promotes close collaboration. Benoit Porte, Director of the Pan American Disaster Response Unit of the IFRC in the Americas, said the initiative brings value to all the partners. "Strengthening the cooperation and mutual support between National Societies, reducing costs of transportation and taking advantage of the regional resources available enables us to coordinate more agile and effective responses in times of disaster or crisis," he says.