An Interview with Dr. Douglas Walker, Mercy Family Center
In September, we published an eye-opening interview with Dr. Bob Doppelt on how communities can prepare for the psychosocial impacts of climate change. This piece continues this critical conversation by talking about specific community-based psychosocial interventions that are being successfully applied in places around the country experiencing traumatic climate events. This conversation takes places on a day when the death count in California wildfires continues to climb, and our guest, Dr. Douglas Walker, is dealing with tornado alerts in New Orleans. He shares what he feels are the most important research findings and practical tips for communities working to increase their capacity to cope with disasters.
When Dr. Walker was asked to help children recover from trauma after Hurricane Katrina, he wasn’t sure how he – as a psychologist, and a fellow survivor – could play a helpful role in long term recovery on a mass scale. Working directly with people struggling to cope with the traumas they had endured inspired him to investigate how communities can lessen their need for formal, clinical mental health intervention by building psychosocial resilience to large-scale climate events. He now leads evidence-informed community programs for Mercy Family Center that are used in local and federal response efforts ranging from flooding to fires.
What is Psychosocial Resilience?
During his work responding to flooding disasters in Canada, Dr. Walker was introduced to the word “psychosocial.” He says this word has helped him talk about “everything that’s not all clinical, all tied up in disease model of mental health … It’s really borne of how we relate to each other.”
The of goal psychosocial recovery or resilience is to achieve greater independence before, during and after trauma, without the need for formal mental health treatment. Psychosocial resilience includes teaching coping strategies, problem solving, individual self care and community care. Dr. Walker points to the World Health Organization’s Pyramid for an Optimal Mix Of Services for Mental Health, which prioritizes “informal community care,” which can include actions like reaching out and sharing stories.
Doubling Down on “Connectedness” and “Social Capital”
It may sound obvious, but there is value to community connection and many communities have lost it. Dr. Walker firmly believes that connectedness is worth “doubling down” on when it comes to resilience. He points to the unique intimacy of tribes he has worked with resulting from their long-standing traditions that support community cohesion and increase their ability to cope with traumatic changes. He also points to research by Daniel Aldridge on building social capital in post-disaster recovery, which quantifies that the closer communities are before a disaster, the better and more quickly they can recover after.
To Survive and Thrive in the Future, Know Your Neighbor
Dr. Walker suggests that the best thing communities can do to build resilience to climate change in the next 10 years is to help people know their neighbor. He says, “We’ve got to be able to get off the couch and shake hands on the street.”
He refers to success of psychosocial resilience strategies that help community members come together. Events like community dinners, tribal Powwows, or conversation in places where neighbors already gather (e.g. schools, libraries) can be much more effective than bringing in unfamiliar new strategies or technologies. At the Mercy Family Center, Dr. Walker has a lot traction with a program called “How’s your 5,” which helps community members get passed “I’m fine” and have a deeper conversations about how they are doing on five specific domains: Work, Fun, Love, Sleep, and Eating. Another successful program he refers to is the “National Night Out,” an annual community-building campaign that promotes police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie to make our neighborhoods safer, more caring places to live.
Building Care and Connection in Communities
Building care and connection in communities may seem simple, but how do you do it effectively? Dr. Walker provides some practical tips based on his experience working in local and tribal communities. He suggests that communities do not need clinical experts to do the work of building community connectedness or social capital. In fact, some of the best models are led by multi-disciplinary team and involve building the capacity of youth and “people persons,” problem solvers and community champions like a social worker, a barber, or an underemployed plumber. He stresses the need to build community capacity early so the community has full ownership of any program. He also emphasizes humility when working in any community, because every community is different and it is critical to listen, understand, and honor community knowledge and practices.
For communities interested in investing in long-term recovery and resilience, Dr. Walker Dr. Walker recommends resources such as Psychological First Aid and Skills for Psychological Recovery. If your looking for more support, you can reach Dr. Walker directly at Douglas.Walker@mercy.net. In fact, we are using Dr. Walker’s advice to help tribes include psychosocial resilience strategies in their climate adaptation planning and implementation efforts.
Careful Who Your Partner With
As we all know, collaboration is a great way to leverage resources and build relationships. However, Dr. Walker warns that recovery can be long and hard. When the 366th day after the disaster comes, many communities find that the partners and resources go away. He suggests vetting partners that offer assistance to find out how long they plan to be around, how capacity can be sustained, and what’s in it for them (e.g. building credibility). In his experience, it’s rare to have a true win-win, so being discerning is important.
What do you think? Dr. Walker and I agreed that the most inspiring thing about this work is that people are naturally geared to connect and there are many ways communities can experiment and share what’s working. Have you found any successful ways to build social care and connectedness in your community? How has it helped your community cope with traumatic climate events?