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Volunteering After a Stressful Event, Like a Hurricane, Can Help You Mentally Recover Faster

UPDATED: May 2020
When natural disasters occur, it is common for those affected to feel isolated, stressed and confused. It is not easy to see things that are part of your everyday life demolished from one day to the next.

In fact, Scientific American has reported that 14.5 percent of residents affected by Superstorm Sandy, and almost a quarter of youth affected by Hurricane Katrina, suffered temporarily from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition that sometimes affects combat veterans.

At times like these, it may be helpful to shift the focus of your own loss and support others in your community by helping each other deal with the shared loss and recovery efforts.

As with so many other aspects of life in the era of the coronavirus, volunteering to help your community after a natural disaster requires extra thought, preparation and precautions. Remember to maintain a healthy social distance from others (at least six feet), wash or sanitize your hands frequently and wear a mask or other cloth face covering.

Nonetheless, even in a pandemic, helping others while you are in need can be rewarding and worthwhile. Helping others while you are in need can be rewarding and worthwhile. According to a paper written by Harvard Health, volunteers benefit from the “happiness effect.” Volunteering weekly can lead to happiness levels that have been compared to a salary raise. It is a great coping mechanism when dealing with the after effects of a natural disaster.

AARP Florida staff and volunteers help
residents in Panama City clean up
after Hurricane Michael

Communities often come together after disasters to help each other, not only with the physical tasks, but also for emotional support. According to the Laborer’s Health and Safety Fund, residents who experienced hurricanes like Harvey, Irma or Maria, are all at risk of anxiety, depression and PTSD. In fact, after Hurricane Maria, the suicide hotline calls heavily increased in Puerto Rico. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) suggests learning what local resources are accessible in assisting those affected by the disaster and distributing this information with others. Volunteering in your community can help you find the emotional support needed to endure the difficult time.

Volunteering in your own community will keep you in touch with neighbors and may facilitate access to updated information when no information is being given to the public in the early days after a storm. The 2018 AARP Volunteer Opinion Survey which focuses on AARP volunteer programs found the reasons for volunteering vary, but most say they enjoy making a difference in people’s lives and in their communities. According to Forbes, volunteering during a crisis will help you in your personal recovery process in addition to the satisfaction of helping others and getting your community back to normalcy.

“You may also want to look into volunteering in your community prior to a natural disaster by contacting the local agencies responsible for providing services and assistance prior, during and after storms,” said Jeff Johnson, AARP’s Florida state director. “Try contacting first responders, area agencies on aging and meal delivery services and offering to help.

Many local Health Departments and Office of Emergency Management are looking for volunteers with medical training to help at special needs shelters, and they provide training to get you ready for emergency events, Johnson added.

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