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Sat, Oct 16, 1999 - Page 2 News List

Counseling efforts need better integration

PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA Psychologists are complaining that the flood of volunteers counseling people who suffered in the 921 earthquake lack professional training, while professionals cannot get out into the field

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

The 921 earthquake last month did more than topple buildings, collapse bridges and claim over 2,300 lives. It also had a major impact on the mental health of quake survivors.

As a result, mental health and social work professionals are still finding it difficult to reach those who are suffering psychologically from the impact of the quake, according to experts and lawmakers.

At a forum yesterday, lawmakers said psychological relief resources have not operated well in the relief action. A major problem, they said, lies in the fact that frontline workers in the disaster areas were volunteers who did not have a professional training in mental health, while professionals had less access to those who needed emergency treatment.

DPP lawmaker Lai Ching-ling (賴勁麟) said the comments indicate that a mental health recovery network for the 921 quake is still lacking, even after three weeks of relief efforts.

Psychological consultation and psychiatry services for victims of the 921 earthquake began just a few days after the quake. Psychologists and students, as well as psychiatrists from 21 public psychiatry centers and hospitals, have joined a variety of professional groups helping people traumatized by the disaster.

Wu Shun-chih, (吳旬枝) a public relation officer at the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzuchi Association (慈濟功德會), said the association -- one of the most efficient in the civil relief efforts -- said it had sent more than 100,000 volunteers to provide "one to one" services to victims in need of counselling. Services include food and the delivery of necessities, personal counseling and religious rituals.

But these volunteers ended up suffering trauma themselves.

"Our workers began to feel a lot of stress after long exposure to victims' bodies," said Wu.

"Fast and flexible mobilization is the advantage of civil groups; therefore, they are able to contact more clients as frontline workers. Whereas psychiatrists, limited by their regular work schedules, were less able to be mobilized to provide direct services to people at the disaster sites," said Yang Yi-hong (楊逸鴻), a psychiatrist from the Taipei Municipal Yang-Ming Hospital (台北市立陽明醫院).

Psychiatrists and counseling workers could only stay in secondary locations and take phone calls from quake victims, Yang said.

One problem that arose was that many workers on the front lines were untrained volunteers lacking professional counseling skills. As a result, they were less able to identify traumatized patients who needed emergency psychiatric help, Yang said.

"We should set up seed programs to train volunteers and social workers who offer direct services at the disaster sites," Yang said .

Echoing Yang, DPP legislator Hung Chi-chang (洪奇昌), himself a psychiatrist, said such a program should include school teachers and local officials.

"Psychological relief is a long-term project for local communities, and schools teachers and local officials play a crucial role in the process," he said.

According to Hung, the lack of mobilization among mental health professionals is a result of a lack of registered mental health professionals here.

Taiwan has only 632 registered psychiatrists at hospitals and psychiatric centers. The Clinical Psychologist Law (臨床心理師法), which would license college psychology majors to give psychological treatment, is bogged own in the legislature.

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