Building Capacity for Disaster Mental Health Relief in the Philippines

June 2, 2014

Article from the June 2014 Edition of Global Mental Health Newsletter, written by Lynn Waelde, Ph.D. 

The last GMH newsletter reported on our disaster relief work in Samar and Leyte Provinces five weeks after Super Typhoon Yolonda (Haiyan) struck the Philippines. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, I worked with Gina Hechanova, Ph.D., Pia Ramos, Ph.D., and their colleagues at Ateneo de Manila University, the Psychological Association of the Philippines, and University of the Philippines-Visayas to integrate mindfulness and meditation training into their Philippine-adapted Psychological First Aid (PFA).

In late December 2013, we offered training to about 130 disaster responders in the two provinces. These responders used the training for their own self-care and in turn offered training to many others. By New Year’s Eve I had an urgent request to send audio-recordings of guided meditations for the responders to include in their ongoing PFA workshops. As the year turned to 2014, I sat quietly on a deck overlooking the Pacific in Hawaii and recorded some files to email in time for their workshops on January 2nd.

I told them that writing a manual generally takes years and the collective efforts of many. I am happy to say that I was quite wrong. Psychologists, counselors, and disaster re- sponders came from around the country to work together and the result is Katatagan: A Resilience Program for Filipino Survivors. The manual contains six modules that can be used in sequence or as stand-alone workshops. All contain some mindfulness training, but one module focuses on mindfulness and meditation as a way of managing physical stress reactions. As of this writing, the manual is in print and being used throughout the country with thousands of survivors. I am working with colleagues in the Philippines to evaluate the outcomes of these workshops and the Inner Resources training we did for about 70 psychologists. Two students in my research group, Jenna Moschetto and Kate Macia, have joined the effort.

PFA is useful in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, so as time went on the group needed an intervention for the intermediate phase, when more focused services might be needed for those who have lasting reactions to disaster stress. We reviewed all the disaster mental health manuals we could find to evaluate them for fit with Filipino culture and their match for the needs and capacities of disaster responders. My colleagues quickly decided they would need to write their own manual and proposed that we convene a three-day meeting in Febru- ary 2014 to do in-depth Inner Resources meditation training for a broader audience of responders and then sequester ourselves in a conference room and not come out until we had written a manual. I will admit, I did try to discourage them from the effort.

I am very grateful to Allen Calvin for providing the oppor- tunity to work in the Philippines and to my colleagues in PAU’s Institute for Peacebuilding for their support. Plans are being made for Drs. Hechanova and Ramos to visit PAU next academic year to do some training in disaster responding and Filipino mental health. I hope many of you can join us. Look for a training announcement we expect to take place during the first week of November.

Photo Captions (from top to bottom):

  1. Baggage claim, Tacolban airport. This airport had no running water and little electrical generator power.
  2. Tacloban Domestic Airport, Tacloban City, Leyte Province, where we landed five weeks after Typhoon Yolanda
  3. Resources training for Disaster Responders, Psychological Association of the Philippines