I hesitate to do something when everybody seems to be doing
it. And lately, it seems, everybody is bashing the Red Cross.
But, in this case, I can't help joining in because the Red
Cross and the public should know about the risk of tainted
As the Red Cross gets out of the blood collection business,
it is shifting its resources toward another potentially contaminating
activity, psychological work with trauma victims. Red Cross
supporters might claim the organization is well-prepared for
this new venture, since it can boast a long history of working
with trauma victims, from the battlefields of the First World
War to the Bosnian refugee camps.
But our image of these workers is of kind souls handing out
food and blankets, making sure orphaned children are safe
and providing medicine for the sick. It is not of counsellors
helping people heal their emotional wounds.
This, however, is what the Red Cross is getting itself into,
perhaps in an effort to prop up a sagging self-image. Elizabeth
Dole, president of the American Red Cross, recently said that
"families devastated by disaster need immediate assistance
to help them cope with the stress, shock, fear and other responses
they may have."
What form might this help take? Well, consider how during
the terrible floods in the Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean Region
of Quebec in 1996, Red Cross workers handed out coupons that
entitled the holders to up to $1,000 worth of free counselling.
And last year, the big drug company, Eli Lilly, gave the American
Red Cross $1 million to train disaster mental health professionals.
The drug company's grant is to be used "to substantially
increase the program's ability to help meet the rapidly expanding
needs of disaster victims and relief workers."
Wait a minute. Disasters aren't increasing. Floods, fires
and wars have happened throughout human history. What is expanding
is not the devastation, but the Red Cross's definition of
its services. In short, it needs something to do to replace
its lost blood-collection business.
Curiously, the Red Cross's Mental Health Services program
began in 1992, just about the time that the tainted blood
scare broke out. Not surprisingly, this program is supported
by mental health professions who, while promoting the Good
Samaritan image, acknowledge that it is good for business.
The American Psychological Association got into the act, lobbying
governments for disaster-relief plans and funding, stating
that disaster victims need "more long-term care."
But what do these trauma counsellors actually do? One psychologist,
quite aptly, called her work "coffee-cup therapy,"
adding that she and others "simply talk to survivors
as they go about their business." Another called it "stealth
psychology" because psychologists doing this work make
a point of not identifying themselves as mental health professionals.
Of course, the official statements offer a different view:
Trauma counsellors provide short-term crisis intervention,
helping people to "grow healthy" and to avoid "a
full fledged post-traumatic stress disorder."
For some, this counselling may be neither harmful nor helpful.
As one farmer I know of put it, talking to nice people might
help relieve boredom when there is nothing else to be done.
But when the disaster is over and there was something to do,
it's time to get back to work -- and get on with life.
However, not everyone gets on with life after receiving trauma
counselling. These good-intentioned counsellors may, in fact,
be doing more harm than good. A woman who endured the Oklahoma
City bombing a few years ago said recently: "We just
start to get over it, and then they (the counsellors) want
us to talk about it again. It's like pulling the scab off
before it heals."
A priest in a Quebec village near the site of the tragic
bus crash that killed 43 senior citizens was perplexed at
the sudden influx of strangers offering everything from advice
to insurance to grief counselling. Calling them "vultures,"
he asked that they leave his parishioners in peace.
While trauma counselling may sound wholesome and benevolent,
most people are probably better off finding their own ways
of coping, be it prayer, love of family or a strong-willed
refusal to be a victim. In fact, it's quite likely that some
of the very people these counsellors are trying to help actually
learn to view themselves as long-term victims of psychological
But now, with the Red Cross getting into the trauma counselling
business, the organization may once again be doing harm. While
tainted blood may be the unwanted legacy of previous ventures,
"tainted trauma" may be the next scandal to be exposed.