When I first was asked to go to Whangaparāoa to help people returning from Wuhan I was excited to be involved, but concerned about the risk to myself and my family members.  Though I knew we had everything we needed to keep safe, including personal protective equipment, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be the one to contract this virus and be put in poor health because of it.

Responding to COVID-19 is completely different to any emergency response I’ve been a part of. You can’t see the damage or the danger, which can be incredibly scary and stressful.

When I was helping at Whangaparāoa, I met people who were extremely worried about their family members in China, or their loss of job and income. Some were frustrated and a few were extremely angry. It was our task to provide support, to help them to be connected and stay calm even amid a very stressful situation.

Things are not so different for many Kiwis right now. Many people are worried and afraid. We’ve all been self-isolating in our bubbles, struggling to keep connected to our loved ones and not to be overwhelmed by everything that is happening around us. 

That’s why, now more than ever, psychosocial support is important. Being with someone, even just virtually, to hear their needs and understand how you can help, is one of the most valuable things any of us can do right now. Letting people know that they are not alone and that it’s ok to feel what they feel is no small thing.

Psychosocial support may seem intangible at times, and you can’t always immediately identify difference you are making, but we know that our calming presence often does make a difference.  During COVID-19 people are experiencing a range of emotional responses – from fear to frustration and everything in between. Without support, these emotions may escalate and become damaging for the person and those around them. In Whangaparāoa, through the psychosocial support that we provided, people felt calmer, more connected and more engaged.  I believe this helped many of the people we met to get through this crisis, and it’s what will help many Kiwis get through the next few weeks and months.

We need to help each other right now. And it won’t take much, all we need to do is reach out. My team and I have been trained in psychological first aid, which is the mental and emotional equivalent of physical first aid.  I’m not a mental health expert, but my training has given me the confidence to know I can reach out and provide emotional support without doing any harm. Psychosocial support isn’t only for people like me and my team, it’s for anyone, and it doesn’t require you to be a  mental health professional. Anyone can provide emotional support. However, knowing how to link people in with formal specialised support (when this is required) is important.

A lot of the time, a kind heart and a listening ear is all that is needed.

David Pennington, Disaster Welfare and Support Team member from Whangarei. 

Support people in need

You can access New Zealand Red Cross’ free pre-recorded Psychological First Aid webinars. People wanting to know more about how to keep themselves well or how to support others can also participate in an online Psychological First Aid or Stress and Wellbeing course. More information here.