STUDENT AFFAIRS | Bradley T. Smith, director of special programs in Student Affairs, is a licensed professional clinical counselor, a board-certified alcohol and other drug counselor, and LMU’s substance use disorders response specialist. Smith is responsible for implementing programs and policies that address prevention, education, early intervention, and harm reduction for substance-use disorders in emerging adults and within their wider contexts. He also teaches in the LMU Extension Addiction Counseling Certificate Program and recently responded to the Red Cross’ urgent, national call for volunteer licensed mental health professionals to assist victims of Hurricane Florence. LMU This Week asked him about his experience.
LMU This Week: How were you selected by the Red Cross to go to North Carolina as a Disaster Mental Health Counselor and how long were you there?
Bradley T. Smith: I received an email from LMU’s School of Education – I’m a 2015 graduate of their Counseling Program – alerting me to a critical need for counselors to respond to the lingering disaster following Hurricane Florence. The minimum deployment time was for nine days, so I contacted our local Red Cross, had five hours of online training and one hour of admin stuff at their Los Angeles headquarters, and was on a plane three days later.
LMUTW: How many people were on your team and what were the work conditions like?
BTS: The team changed every day as exhausted personnel ended their rotations and new folks like me arrived. I was assigned to a large shelter with over 100 displaced persons, and for the first two days there was an impressive multidisciplinary team on the ground: full triage with an on-site physician, 24-hour nursing, and six mental health clinicians on my team. Red Cross responders also stayed in staff shelters; churches, military bases and high school gymnasiums, on cots. There were simply no hotel rooms, and those that became available were prioritized to disaster victims. Then, as conditions in the disaster area – the largest in the United States at that time – and dynamics within the shelter changed, resources were reallocated. Hurricane Michael had just come ashore in Florida and we would shelter in place the following day. We drew down rapidly after Michael. By day four of my deployment I was senior staff, orienting new arrivals, collaborating with case managers, community partners, and serving my caseload. My team had two members.
LMUTW: What were the predominant psychological symptoms you saw in the wake of Hurricane Florence?
BTS: Trauma and hopelessness. It is useful to recognize that I arrived during the fourth week of a persistent and still-escalating disaster; most of the persons left in the shelter were already economically fragile and had lost everything; many had complex medical and mental challenges, and a large segment were pre-disaster homeless. In short, most of the people who remained in the shelter were marginalized and underserved before the disaster. My work was largely limited to an approach known as Psychological First Aid: creating a compassionate presence, listening, ensuring fundamental safety, meeting basic needs, building coping skills – and, from a sheer tactical standpoint, ending the conversation. There was just too much need. The shifts were 12-hours a day, often longer, and I documented about 40 “clinically significant contacts” per day. One-fourth of these encounters were mental health services for other Red Cross staff and related first responders.
LMUTW: In what ways did LMU support your efforts?
BTS: My supervisor said “yes” without batting an eye. As is the case with LMU in general, there are very high degrees of trust and competency within my office. They just assumed I knew what I was doing, would not jeopardize my responsibilities here, and asked how they could support me.
LMUTW: Is there a particular hopeful moment that has stayed with you?
BTS: Two things. The first is a quote, attributed to Helen Keller: “The world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming it.” I witnessed countless acts of extraordinary kindness and compassion – not just by first responders, but also among the shelter residents themselves. The second is a bit more sublime, and it is something I often say to our students: It is not service if it is convenient.