A Road Not Yet Traveled

Aug 6, 2013

leesa 5-3-2013 [Guest post by Leesa Astredo. Leesa is the Co-Founder of Info4Disasters.org & EMsafespace.org; Empathy team lead at Standby Task Force; a community leader at Ushahidi; and a Red Cross volunteer, both on the ground and virtual. But most importantly she is proud to be part of a great movement in Emergency Management.] We are small in number, but growing and we have no predecessors. We are pioneers in an ever-changing world of disaster response. Who am I? I am a Digital Humanitarian Disaster Responder, and my name is Leesa. Each day I tweet disaster and humanitarian information: first aid info; hurricane updates on Face Book, videos of families in NY and NJ who lost everything during Superstorm Sandy. I look at pictures of hurt and maimed children in Syria and map crisis/disaster areas while all along looking for more ways to volunteer and help our global population.

With so much pain and destruction, one must wonder why in the world anyone would do this: it's to help our world, to lend a hand during any and all disasters whether man-made or natural.

This field is not for the weak or mild. Its exhausting work, both mentally and physically. For us in the digital world, we suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and burnout, as "boots on the ground" or any first-line responder does. Whereas "boots on the ground" experience physical and mental stress inevitable in that service, we have our own physical and mental stresses. Why? We can/do travel far and wide, sometimes through many disasters without leaving our home and for hours, days, and months at a time. The early days of a disaster find many "virtual" responders hunched over their computers for nights on end, often with little or no sleep. Many don't expect it or even know when/what the stress of this service is when it hits. It is PTSD, and it can happen to any digital humanitarian responder. PTSD can come in many forms and be disguised as just being burnt out. It can be mild or totally disable you. While everyone may experience it in a different way, there are three common symptoms: • Re-experiencing the traumatic event • Avoiding reminders of the trauma • Increased anxiety and emotional distress Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) • Anger and irritability • Guilt, shame, or self-blame • Substance abuse • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal • Depression and hopelessness • Suicidal thoughts and feelings • Feeling alienated and alone • Physical aches and pains More information can be found at http://blogs.psychcentral.com/ I, too, suffer at times from depression and burnout.

What does it feel like?

I pull away from my normal activities and people who I normally want to see. I don’t want to face anything, myself included. Any “outside” distraction can be very overwhelming. I just can’t get back into my everyday life. Email, Skype, twitter, texting - all a major distraction which I just can’t deal with. How much of this adds to someone who already suffers depression? A lot I do imagine. During my “episodes”, a safe, quiet harbor is what I seek. I watch movies that keep my mind from thinking about anything except what I am watching, which, for me, is always black and white movies from the 30's, 40's and 50's. No commercials, no news alerts, nothing to interrupt my fantasy world. Turner Classic Movies have come to my rescue many times during my burnout periods. Living in NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana), I was a survivor of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a Red Cross volunteer in our recovery. I spent one month going from shelter to shelter assisting those living in shelters get their medications and rediscover some mental well-being. I now know that I was hiding from the devastation I lived with daily. PTSD_carousel_t640 Not until Superstorm Sandy hit Long Island, NY, did I realize how much of my Katrina memories had been housed on a shelf all those years. By some twist of fate, I was in Long Island when my departing plane was cancelled due to the oncoming storm. It all came back to me. I could talk and think of nothing else. I was actually in sort of a high feeling...my adrenaline was pumping thinking back to that first month and the many months that followed Katrina. After the initial "high" feeling, I crashed. For about 3 months I did not want to go back into all of my volunteer positions and do my "work" anymore. I did not trust my feelings or feel confident enough to do my work. I have a support team in my friends who also do the work I do, who support me during my down times, who just check-in on me to be sure I am ok and maybe telling me about a great movie coming up on TCM in case I am not watching...lol. When I am ready, just knowing those folks are there for me gets me back up and running back to my work as quickly as possible. Support in this field is paramount. You MUST have support and validation of what you are feeling. Organizations that go out into the field have a support and/or debriefing policy in place, where the digital volunteer has yet to find such organized support. My team at info4disasters are working to change that. We have made an online community for just this purpose. Both digital and "boots-on-the-ground" volunteers and workers now have a place to go to find like minds and those experiencing the same kinds of feelings. The community at EMSS (Emergency Management Safe Space) was set up with you in mind, the digital volunteer/worker, so please sign-up and make your self at home there. I've had people ask me if they can get PTSD by just looking at pictures and tweeting... the answer is yes. You are living the life of those people you are trying to help. In my opinion, we see more online than those on the ground since the Internet can take us far and wide with just a click, not physically, but visually none-the-less. No need to travel out of our living room, office or bedroom, we experience similar feelings right in our own homes. Don't close yourself away when you start to feel down. Talk to someone else who understands...someone else that does the same work as you. In my mind, only another digital volunteer really understands how we feel. If you would like to discuss this further with me, I can be reached at leesa At info4disasters DOT org. My Skype and twitter handle is @viequesbound. My love, support, and hugs to each of you and my heartfelt thanks for all you do for our world! "One world, one community!" Leesa