Social workers need greater role in disasters

CALGARY — International experts say social workers should play a greater role in helping during natural disasters.

The experts are taking part in a University of Calgary workshop with the aim of building an Alberta-wide network of social workers ready to assist during calamities such as the 2013 floods in southern Alberta or last year’s Fort McMurray wildfire.

“They understand the community. They know the history. They’re often residents of the place, and those relationships they have before an event often get strengthened afterwards,” organizer Julie Drolet, an associate professor in the social work faculty at the University of Calgary, said Wednesday.

Social workers need to prepare in a structured way and learn how to become ready to help when a disaster first occurs and in the long-term as well, Drolet said.

“Often there is an influx of resources and dollars to support what happens in the immediate aftermath, but then over time those dollars are no longer available.

“What we’re hearing from the agencies that work directly with individuals, families, children and youth is the ongoing need for those kind of supports for emotional and mental health.”

Golam Mathbor, a professor of social work at Monmouth University in New Jersey, has done extensive research on flooding in Pakistan. He said social workers should be at a disaster scene as soon as victims come forward.

“Social workers are in a unique position more than any other profession to serve in a disaster. They know where the mentally frail people live. They know if people need special accommodation (and) they can take them to the shelter houses,” said Mathbor.

“We need to train the people. We need to give them the skill of what to do when a disaster strikes.”

Desley Hargreaves has worked during a number of disasters, including the 2002 bombing in Bali, Indonesia, as well as the 2009 bushfires in her native Australia.

She said the role of social workers extends beyond providing counselling. They provide a voice for victims and can be a source of information.

“Being able to access social workers and other non-government organization workers who have a local knowledge and local connections can help you validate what’s going on,” said Hargreaves, an adjunct professor in social work at the University of Queensland.

She suggested the role of social workers needs to extend well beyond a disaster’s first couple of years. That was made clear to her when the government of Australia sent victims of the Bali bombing back to Indonesia a decade later.

“The 10th anniversary was actually a really critical time for them to actually say, ‘I’m not coping.’ Most people wouldn’t think that 10 years on people were suddenly going to say this is really affecting me now,” Hargreaves said.

“Some people couldn’t actually leave the hotel because it was too confronting for them.”

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