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Volunteers could become victims
07 January 2005
by Rosemary Desmond

First-time volunteers helping out with victims of tsunami-ravaged areas ran the risk of becoming victims themselves, an Australian counselling expert said today.

Many people could face post-traumatic stress disorder in the months ahead unless they received a professional debriefing, said Philip Armstrong, president of the Australian Counselling Association (ACA).

"There is no point in taking people over there if they are going to become victims, which is a big concern I have," Mr Armstrong said.

"Particularly these people who are just going over there looking for family members or staying over there because they think they can help.

"These people just don't know what they are letting themselves in for and a lot of them are going to come back and be traumatised."

Armstrong said professional supervision was vital to ensure volunteers, victims and their families did not take home other people's problems.

Disasters such as the Bali bombing, Port Arthur massacre, the Childers backpacker fire in Queensland and the Canberra bushfires had been serious but were small in scope compared with the Asian tsunami disaster and its likely long-term effects.

"We haven't faced anything like this before and it's ongoing," Mr. Armstrong said.

ACA was now working with the Australian Red Cross to assemble a team of at least seven volunteers with appropriate qualifications in counselling, psychology or psychiatry.

The team was likely to be sent to an area deemed by the Red Cross to be in greatest need, such as the Indonesian province of Aceh, and would be replaced every 10 days or so.

In the meantime, the ACA was calling for at least several hundred of its 5,000-plus members to list their names on a register to provide a free counselling service to returning rescue workers, injured victims and their families.

Mr Armstrong also called on the federal government to provide free counselling or psychological counselling through Medicare for those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

Philip Castle, former journalist and a director of journalists' support group the Dart Centre for News Media and Trauma – Australasia (DCA), said reporters, photographers and camera crews who were covering the disaster also ran the risk of suffering trauma.

Mr Castle, who lectures in journalism at the Queensland University of Technology, conducted a study of the effect of the 1998 PNG tsunami on Australian journalists.