Peer Listener Training Taught in the UF/IFAS Northwest District
County Extension Director
Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent
Family & Consumer Sciences Agent
Although an environmental disaster, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will have far reaching mental affects on a community as evidenced by the aftermath of the Prince Williams Bay Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Dr. Stephen Picou, Sociologist from the University of South Alabama, spent years studying the mental aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Part of his research included the formation of a peer listener program that encouraged volunteers to take part in training to assist their community in outreach to individuals that needed to talk to someone about their day-to-day stresses.
Dr. Stephen Picou, Sociologist from the University of South Alabama. Photo Credits: Pete Vergot
In light of the needs of the communities along the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi/Alabama Sea Grant Consortium funded six peer listener training sessions directed at volunteers and agencies serving the mental health needs in communities. On August 12, 2010, Dr. Picou conducted training for 30 Extension faculty, volunteers and agency representatives at the Walton County Extension Office in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. Some of the agencies represented were: NOAA, AmeriCorps, A Time to Change Counseling Center and United Way First Call for Help.
Extension faculty, community agency representatives, and volunteers participate in peer listening training. Photo Credits: Pete Vergot
During natural disasters communities often come together to help rebuild and support one another. Technical disasters are the result of human error and a lot of energy is often expended on assessing blame. Quite often the blame game comes to dominate any attempt at rebuilding and recovery. Anger is also a natural response when someone or entity is at fault. This can result in what a sociologist would call a corrosive community. Social relationships suffer, community groups become fragmented, family conflicts increase, and self isolation may become the primary coping mechanism. What can we do to help reduce this chronic corrosive cycle of despair? One effective tool used is simply being a good listener.
In Alaska a network of trained peer listeners was set up to help people with the stress brought about the spill in Prince Williams sound. Talking is a key component in dealing with frustration and anger. Anger is neither right nor wrong, because emotions are not wrong, but how you express them can be a problem. Anger can motivate people to deal with difficult issues and give an individual a sense of control. However, anger can also disrupt thoughts and actions and lead to impulsive and aggressive behavior that may be counterproductive. A peer listener can help people talk through their anger and help keep counterproductive behaviors from happening.
Key components of the peer listening program are listening, empathy, providing emotional and physical support, and serving as liaisons between disaster survivors and community resources. Certain responses are not helpful or supportive when listening to someone dealing with the frustrations and anger brought about by this disaster. Examples: I know how you feel, You should not feel that way, You’ve got to get on with your life, You’ve got to be strong, You’re lucky to have…, Good will come out of this, Don’t worry, You’ll get over this, You should not talk about it, Why didn’t you…., It was God’s will. To be a good listener you need to:
Be interested and show it
Tune in to the other person
Concentrate on the message
And take care of yourself
Heidi L. Radunovich Assistant Professor at the University of Florida, Department of Family Youth and Community Sciences assisted in coordinating the workshop. Concluding the workshop, Heidi commented, “It is often hard to know what to say when we have clientele we are working with who are experiencing difficulties related to disaster – whether a hurricane, or in this case an oil spill. Hopefully this presentation helped county faculty feel more prepared to deal with those difficult situations.”