After the flood in the Ahr valley: when helpers need help

Status: 01/23/2022 09:29 am

Six months after the flood disaster in Rhineland-Palatinate, many helpers are still struggling with what they have experienced. But too often they are left alone. Therapy places are rare.

It’s lunchtime, men in work clothes are sitting in small groups in the helpers’ tent, eating hot pea soup. Jürgen Sievertz is visiting the helpers in Mayschoß – until recently he was one of them himself. He sits a little apart, looks withdrawn, tired. He was there from the start – sometimes seven days a week, often up to twelve hours a day.

“I managed and distributed relief supplies and building materials. And talked to the people, you know a lot of them, they lost everything.” It was physically demanding, but above all mentally. “Over time it became more and more and sometime around mid-December I realized: I can no longer deal with the situation on my own, I’m totally overwhelmed, I just went to bed crying at night.”

A psychosocial caregiver from the helper tent spoke to him at the time and offered help. He initially refuses, but then changes his mind. After a counseling appointment at the trauma help center for people in the Ahr Valley, one thing is clear: he urgently needs professional help. Sieverts pulls the ripcord, stops working as a helper and goes into therapy.

First aid in the trauma care center

The “Trauma Aid Center for the Ahr Valley” is located in Lantershofen, about 15 kilometers from the helper’s tent in Mayschoß. It only opened at the beginning of December. The facility is a joint project of Dr. Ehrenwall’schen Klinik Ahrweiler and the DRK specialist clinic for child and adolescent psychiatry in Bad Neuenahr, both of which were badly damaged by the flood.

While in the first few months it was mainly those affected who contacted the trauma hotline or the mobile psychological counseling centers, now it is more and more helpers. Katharina Scharping heads the center, her team consists of sociotherapists, psychologists and doctors, four full-time positions with nine part-time employees. They all want to approach those seeking help with low-threshold offers. That works: It’s been overwhelmed with inquiries since the day the center’s phones went live.

“Many have the feeling that I am not affected myself and have a kind of survivor’s guilt and have to make up for it,” she says. “And they work without end. It seems as if you can do that for about half a year, because now the helpers collapse, they just burn out,” says Scharping.

Support for traumatized flood workers

Christin Jordan, SWR, daily news at 3:00 p.m., January 18, 2022

Huge number of people in need

It is unclear how many people were traumatized by the flood disaster. According to studies, around ten percent of those affected by natural disasters suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. With more than 40,000 people directly affected in the Ahr Valley, that would mean 4,000 severely traumatized.

Doctor Katharina Scharping expects thousands of traumatized people after the flood.

Bild: SWR

However, Scharping assumes that the numbers are much higher: “In addition to the residents, those who helped also suffered mental injuries, whether they were emergency services from the fire brigade or technical aid organization or volunteers who streamed into the valley in the days, weeks and months afterwards. A total of 150,000 could be affected – we had 100,000 helpers alone – then at least 15,000 people would be severely traumatized.”

Scharping cites an example: “Employees at a rescue control center, where countless calls for help were made on the night of the flood, but who could not help, had a feeling of powerlessness. You don’t just recover from that.”

Lack of therapists and the consequences

Low-threshold offers are also group events about the consequences of trauma here in Lantershofen, for example a group for traumatized craftsmen is planned. Not every person affected needs therapy, often talking to others helps. Nevertheless: Scharping is very worried about the lack of therapy places with psychotherapists.

“We can offer counseling appointments, but then it often doesn’t go any further,” says Scharping. “Basically, we put people from counseling on waiting lists.” And they were long even before Corona, six months waiting time for a place in psychotherapy, two to three for a psychiatrist.

More outpatient treatment places required

“In addition to the inpatient therapy places, we would also need many more outpatient treatment places. Then the people would be treated now, otherwise they would need inpatient treatment. Sooner or later they will probably develop further psychiatric illnesses from it, depression, anxiety disorders, they might also become physically ill. “

Health insurance companies and the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians are cooperative, but the efforts are far from sufficient to cover the enormous demand. What does such a catastrophe and the psychological consequences mean for society?

“We’ll see that in a few years. The feeling that you’re not left alone is crucial for the development of post-traumatic stress disorder or getting well again. It makes a big difference when you experience things, because others can help you too.”

Back to life

Step by step back to the old life: A feeling that Siebertz also knows: “Even if you laugh about it – I didn’t think I needed something like that. But it did me good, I didn’t regret it, and it works Now the next step. Now comes the long-term therapy, six weeks of rehab.”

There is still a long way ahead of him – which many severely traumatized people will also walk. “Maybe I can help them now by talking about it.”

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