When disasters like Hurricane Katrina strike, they bring not only the devastation of homelessness, unemployment and post-traumatic stress disorder, but also can exacerbate the pain and hopelessness that are the legacy of generations of racism and low socioeconomic status. To prevent this, disaster relief efforts must take into account racial and cultural factors when responding to a community in crisis, according to a new report by the APA Task Force on Multicultural Training, released in August.
Convened in the wake of Katrina, the task force reviewed the effectiveness of the post-disaster mental health care response. The members concluded that the Disaster Response Network (DRN) volunteers-including psychologists and other mental health professionals-hadnot received adequate training in culturally competent care. For example, many Latino evacuees were sent to shelters in Baton Rouge and Arkansas, but shelter staff and volunteers generally did not speak Spanish, making communication virtually impossible. Elsewhere, volunteer mental health workers set up designated mental health stations, but did not attempt to bridge the cultural gap and provide an atmosphere that encouraged evacuees to seek help, the task force found.
To prevent such problems in the future, the report recommends that APA create fact sheets for health-care providers with information on culturally competent disaster services, develop online multicultural training, encourage graduate programs to provide multicultural disaster response courses and work through the DRN to educate the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency about multicultural competence in disaster response.
"We believe that developing specific curricula can help staff and volunteers to better understand the behavior of persons culturally different from themselves," concludes Multicultural Task Force chair Henry Tomes, PhD.