Rest + Routine + Relationships = Resilience: Fargo psychologist helps in times of disasterKit O’Neill is not a drama queen. Nor is she a storm chaser. She does, however, find herself in the middle one disaster after another. The clinical psychologist puts herself into these situations – on purpose. She helps those affected move from chaos to calm and from mess to meaning.
By: Merrie Sue Holtan, SheSays contributor, INFORUM
Kit O’Neill is not a drama queen. Nor is she a storm chaser. She does, however, find herself in the middle one disaster after another.
The clinical psychologist puts herself into these situations – on purpose. She helps those affected move from chaos to calm and from mess to meaning.
Her mental health tool kit has taken her to Hurricane Hugo, the aftermath of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the ruins of the Oklahoma City bombing. O’Neill has seen the destruction of tornados in the central plains and flooding near home in the Red River Valley.
A vocation in disaster relief called to her as a psychology intern at Medical University of South Carolina, and O’Neill responded as she would many other calls throughout her career.
Her Fargo journey began in 1992 when she joined the psychology faculty at North Dakota State University and established a clinical psychology practice.
O’Neill now teaches workshops in disaster mental health, coordinates a psychologist disaster response network, and volunteers her time on a regional and national level with the American Red Cross. She aids both disaster victims and those who care for the victims develop coping skills, courage, hope and resilience.
O’Neill grew up in a family of five in Greenville, S.C., where her parents stressed the importance of education, giving your best and giving back, especially to the church and community.
A love of psychology led her to Clemson University, where she honed her undergraduate cognitive behavioral training and met her future husband, George O’Neill, also a clinical psychologist. A job opening at the University of North Dakota medical school opened for George, and the couple moved to North Dakota.
“What an adventure,” Kit said. “I transferred and finished my master’s degree at NDSU and then pursued my Ph.D. at UND. We really planned to get back to the South but couldn’t find any place we liked better than North Dakota.”
In 1989, she returned to South Carolina to complete a one-year internship requirement for her doctoral studies.
“I rented a bungalow on the ocean, borrowed some furniture, saw George about every month, and spent time with my family,” Kit said. “Then it hit. Hugo – a Category 4 hurricane made landfall 10 miles from my beach house. It was my first experience with big disaster.”
Evacuated to her parent’s home in Greenville, Kit stayed glued to the television watching the disaster process unfold. In Hugo’s aftermath, she spent her internship helping out hospital and clinic staff and then moved out to provide communitywide services. She saw how disaster psychology impacted the community and learned the value of team work.
“It was a life changing experience,” Kit said. “Through it I learned that disaster response and recovery were a really good fit for me. It became my 20-year passion.”
9/11 and Katrina
Fresh out of her doctoral work, Kit joined the MinnKota Red Cross volunteer corps and began to teach two-day courses on how to do disaster relief for volunteers.
“9/11 was our first nationwide disaster,” said O’Neill, who arrived in New York City about month after the bombings. “Self care, nutrition and sleep are so important for any kind of disaster response. Workers need energy to do their work and need to be connected to other people for a support network.”
Kit usually has an on- site disaster buddy for debriefing and frequent “mental health” phone calls to George to help her with the overwhelming job of helping victims and aid workers.
“If you’re ever in a crisis situation, Kit is the person to have with you,” said George. “She has an uncanny ability to anticipate the likely consequences of various actions, and she can spur people into action.”
In 2005, Kit entered the Hurricane Katrina disaster soon after the storm hit and spent time in rural evacuation shelters. She pointed out the chaos and high stress placed on Red Cross volunteer and shelter managers.
“For some, it was their first time volunteering with the Red Cross,” she said. “We needed calm and confident shelter managers; supporting them meant better recovery for the disaster survivors.”
Red River Resilience
The O’Neills both volunteered as Red River mental health workers during the 1997 flood and in the past few recent floods. The researcher side of Kit led her to examine what the experts said about resilience, from the Latin word “resiline,” to spring back. She found the FACTS.
• F – Focus on the positive. Even in difficult times, know that your life has positive aspects. Have confidence in yourself because you have overcome problems before. Notice small improvements in yourself and the situation.
• A – Act with purpose. Define the problem and the solution. Take decisive, achievable steps to reach your goals. Talk to someone you trust and face problems directly.
• C – Connect with others. Relationships with family and friends are a buffer against stress. Do what you can to help others and serve your community.
• T – Take care of yourself. Nurture your body with sleep, nutrition and exercise. Take time to relax. Spend time in meditation, with nature or religious practices.
• S – Search for meaning. Search for positive meaning in the crisis. Learn about yourself. What did you learn about coping? Look for newfound inner strength.
Kit points out that 2012, a non-flood year, will be a good time to work on resiliency, self care and preparedness – to take a breath and a breather.
Overall community preparedness has also improved according to Kit. Citizens have become more involved. Leaders with vast experience have stepped up, psychological and social support of each other has grown, and there is good flow of communication between the media, aid agencies, government and each other.
Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) has been formed making plans on how best to respond, using training and disaster exercises.
“An integrated weather warning team has come together with messaging in time of disaster,” O’Neill said. “Also across county lines, Cass and Clay have formed a team of professionals dedicated to disaster relief.”
For her own self care, O’Neill and her husband take National Geographic Expeditions. They just returned from the Sea of Cortez and watching grey whales with their calves in protected waters. They also enjoy hiking, reading and finding healing in nature.
“Many times in my life I have sensed a holy moment, a strong presence, in the midst of disaster. It’s God’s intervention through people to solve problems that brings healing and resiliency.”
Merrie Sue Holtan is a regular contributor to SheSays. She lives near Perham, Minn., and can be reached at email@example.com.