Several years from now, we will look back at people who lived through the hurricane season of 2017 (Harvey, Irma, Maria, etc.) and see that some of them are thriving while others have never recovered from the catastrophe. This was true for Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and it will likely be true for every natural disaster that ever happens in the world. Those of us who aspire to help in the disaster response process can play a significant role in increasing the numbers of people who are able to achieve three types of resilient outcomes: minimizing harm, maintaining well-being, and experiencing growth. Let’s look at how we might best do this.

There are several factors that affect how effectively a human being can recover from significant adversity:

  • How hard were they hit? Some people experienced minor to moderate inconvenience–flooded streets, damaged property–while others lost literally everything, including the lives of loved ones.
  • What resources do they have? People who have bank accounts and lines of credit, good jobs, and perhaps even second homes or vacation properties find it much easier to get their feet under them than people who are barely scraping by, with no savings, no credit, and no easy way to make a fresh start.
  • How strong is their personal resilience? While everyone has some elements of resilience within them, some have developed and strengthened their ability to deal with adversity, while others have not done this as effectively.
  • What kind of support do they receive? Some people receive little support and assistance, or well-intentioned but ineffective attempts at aid, while others receive significant levels of helpful support.

For those of us who want to be helpful, the fourth factor is the only one we can really control. With that in mind, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned about how to best support others’ resilience in the wake of a disaster.

  1. Listen. An essential part of being helpful is listening to the people who were affected. Not only can this help you better understand what they most need, but it also allows them to express thoughts and emotions they may not yet have talked about. It grants them respect in an environment where they may feel dehumanized by their situation. Resist the urge to jump in and start doing things without first establishing a connection and hearing the voices of the people you want to help.
  2. Address threats to physical safety. Although it may go without saying, one of the most important things to do after a disaster is to make sure that things don’t get worse for the people involved. Ensuring that they are out of the path of additional harm, that medical conditions are addressed, and that they have water, food, and shelter allows them to begin the process of evaluating their situation and deciding what they need to do next. In some cases, it is better to leave this work to trained first responders, but there are times when the responsibility will fall on you.
  3. Connect with existing systems and processes. Relief efforts are most helpful when they are coordinated and targeted to the areas of greatest need. Many well-intentioned people start their own activities, such as collecting clothing and household goods and delivering them to a disaster zone, without realizing that their actions can actually be counterproductive, causing relief workers to spend precious time and energy sorting and storing materials that will probably not be used. Taking some time to understand what efforts are already in place and what is most needed will benefit everyone. Here are some places to start. If you look around and no response has begun, here are some steps you can take to get started.
  4. Find useful ways of being positive. Maintaining a positive attitude is an important ingredient in resilience, but when you are working with someone who is experiencing grief and loss, you need to be thoughtful about how you seek to encourage positivity. For example, telling people “it could have been so much worse; be thankful that you’re alive” is probably not going to be very effective. Instead, help people brainstorm solutions and locate resources to deal with problems they’re facing. Offer specific assistance (“I’d like to come over and help you clean up your house”). Ask them if they would like a hug. You will spread more joy by being positive yourself, and doing things to help them move through the coping and grieving process, than by trying to change their mood or thought processes directly. Here is a useful guide to helping people cope with stress and loss.
  5. Take care of yourself, too. When you are surrounded by great need, it’s easy to get caught up in the urgency of helping and spend hours, days, and even weeks or months in effortful activity. This can lead to physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual burnout. When you are burned out, you aren’t much good to anyone. Eating well, getting rest, reaching out for social support, and taking time for enjoyable activities can help you sustain your support over a longer period of time.

Fire, flood, hurricanes, tornadoes, war…natural disasters and human-made crises will continue to trouble the world. Each of us can prepare ourselves to make a difference and support the resilience of those who are affected.