Psychology in action

Stepping onto New Terrain: Organizations that Help Give Globally

A look at "PsyCorps" and "Psychology Without Borders," two non-governmental organizations that help psychologists apply their skills in emergencies around the globe and that use unique approaches to training their volunteers.

By Amena Hassan

In our last issue of Psychology International, we compared two non-governmental organizations that help psychologists apply their skills in emergencies around the globe. In this issue we’ll look at two additional groups doing similar work and using unique approaches to training their volunteers: PsyCorps and Psychologists Without Borders. 
PsyCorps. John Thoburn, PhD, joined PsyCorps in 2005 as the clinical director and now works as a clinical consultant. After the devastating tsunami hit the shores of Indonesia in 2004, PsyCorp’s Seattle based co-founder and neuropyschologist, Glen Goodwin paired up with Thoburn, looking for a way to help. Thoburn, who had already worked for over two decades in the field of trauma psychology, had been gradually developing an idea for psychological first-aid teams in areas prone to chronic disaster.

“We are really looking for areas where there is the likelihood that acute disaster will occur,” Thoburn stated. “Aid is secondary to setting up indigenous teams that can help their own people. When you’re talking about mental health issues you’re talking about real nuances in culture and belief and this led us to the thought that no one can help better than the people themselves.” The organization operates on the “community resource model” and has local psychological first-aid teams operate in areas prone to natural or man-made disasters, while providing care for the caregivers. With an aim to provide psychological first-aid and not psychotherapy, the training of PsyCorp’s volunteer teams primarily involves a networking paired with assistance from mental health professionals.
Teams are designed in derived from groups of 32 people who are then broken up into 4-person teams. Volunteers are trained to work with government and civil agencies and tackle both major disasters in a given region and more specific disasters such as airplane crashes and fires. As they labor toward relieving a disaster, operating through a country’s maze of political upheaval can pose additional challenges.

Currently, the organization is preparing to send volunteers to Sri Lanka. “There’s an ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka between the Tamils that’s been continuing for 25 years,” Thoburn noted. “Several people have been injured, mostly by mines, and Red Cross workers have been kidnapped and killed there in recent months. There’s a lot of acrimony about the aid that came into Sri Lanka and the Tamils were upset that the government was keeping it from them due to their refusal to recognize them. This eventually creates a violent cycle.”

In its work around the globe, PsyCorps implements Flexible Psychological First Aid, which incorporates training from both the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and the Red Cross. The Red Cross training is used for particular populations whereas the ICISF method goes further into the emotional life of affected people. Thoburn feels there are benefits to using both types in many situations. “What we’re doing is training our teams to work with first responders via ICISF and then using the Red Cross model to go out into the communities. We recognize that there’s a problem with cross-over so we’ve trained teams to work with both.”

Psychology Without Borders. Psychology Without Borders is evolving into an organization with a solid foundation in disaster relief. Psychologist Roxanne Silver, PhD, a founding member, sees the group at a significant point in its relatively early history of implementing a three pronged approach of intervention, research and policy. When the organization began in 2003, the founding members included psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers who met to discuss dealing with the effects of trauma from attacks in a post-9/11 atmosphere.

“Mental health services were underrepresented in recovery or disaster relief organizations and essentially our board of directors helped to form a nonprofit that represented psychology, psychiatry and social work.” Silver explained how one of the main aims of Psychology Without Borders was to respond to areas that had been subject to terrorist attacks, as well as natural disasters. “If there is a terrorist attack in Indonesia, then our trained individuals would go in. We would send them to any of those areas. We’ve had a few reconnaissance missions where we’ve sent someone to go into Pakistan for earthquake relief and another volunteer to help with the situation in Liberia with the child soldiers. Our goal is to have a cadre of volunteers who would work in both intervention and research.”

At the moment, PWOB is requesting proposals for the Psychology Without Borders Mission Awards, an initiative to find projects that will substantially contribute to their mission of alleviating psychological suffering and enhancing knowledge that can benefit future survivors of terror or disaster. “We really see our role as coming in after all of the initial aid organizations pull out of a location,” said Silver. “What we’re doing right now is fundraising, forming an international advisory, and exploring places where we might go in. We want to be thoughtful in our approach and not duplicate the efforts of other organizations.”
For more information on these organizations please visit PsyCorps or Psychology Without Borders