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Along with taking a physical toll on flood victims, the process of cleaning up damage since historic flooding hit Nebraska and Iowa hard in March, can also take an emotional toll as well.

In an effort to address flood-related mental health needs, mental health professionals and psychological first aid experts from the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center recently launched the Nebraska Strong Recovery Project.

The Nebraska Strong Recovery Project is led by Denise Bulling, a senior research director and licensed mental health practitioner with the Public Policy Center, and has led the charge through training outreach counselors across the state,

“These counselors are members of the community who work with survivors and organizations to help support individuals and communities as they experience the highs and lows of recovery,” Bulling said. “They talk with survivors, listen to their stories, and help them problem solve and connect them to resources.”

According to Bulling, there are several phases of disaster recovery that survivors experience including — pre-disaster, impact, heroic, honeymoon, disillusionment and reconstruction.

Counselors within the program are trained to spot these phases and help individuals work through them.

“Once people understand the phases of disaster, and what the common reactions are, they’re able to put their own reactions in perspective and realize what they’re experiencing is common and that there are ways to cope with the stress of recovery,” Bulling said. “When you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to see and recognize it. These outreach workers help them understand what they’re going through and give them some tools to help cope and move forward.”

Outreach counselors were identified by the state’s behavioral health regions and are paid through the grant funding. They must be certified in five trainings held throughout the year.

According to Bulling, Public Policy Center staff are also helping communities collect data on the contacts made by the outreach counselors, and have created branding and supplemental materials for the project.

Bulling stressed that the program is free and anonymous to anyone affected by the disaster.

While outreach workers are in the communities, the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline — 1-800-464-0258 — is also serving as a touchpoint for anyone who needs help.

Bulling has worked on countless disasters across Nebraska and the United States, including the Hallam tornado in 2004, the California wildfires in 2017 and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

“We have a longstanding role in disaster preparedness and recovery, and we have a longstanding partnership with the state and voluntary agencies,” Bulling said. “For us, it’s important to help the state and its residents access all available resources to recover emotionally after a disaster.”

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