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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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Fostering Psychological Resilience

Author: Dana Dudley, MSW and Kayla Siviy, MSW, ASPR Division of Community Mitigation and Recovery.
Published Date: 7/29/2021 10:48:00 AM
Category: Response & Recovery;

Innovative Strategies and Best Practices from the Medical Reserve Corps

Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) units have faced challenging situations and many dedicated volunteers have performed extraordinary work as they partner with their local communities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The MRC is a national network of volunteers, organized locally to improve the health and safety of their communities. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many MRC units have been faced with, and worked to address, behavioral health needs by implementing effective strategies to promote team well-being and resilience.

These strategies have offered meaningful support to MRC volunteers who have served in a variety of high stress situations – from medical surge support at healthcare facilities to mass vaccinations – and can be adopted by other organizations to support their people.


Challenges during COVID-19 for MRC units:

  1. Length of missions
    • Long activations, often for months
  1. Frequency of mission assignments
    • Being asked to serve repeatedly and/or getting tapped for multiple shifts
  1. The nature of missions
    • Exposure to suffering, unique to each mission
    • Changes in roles/responsibilities
  1. High volume of people served
    • The stress of tending to large volumes of people
  1. Last-minute assignments
    • Being overwhelmed by ongoing last-minute requests for volunteer assistance or staffing
  1. Changing or conflicting messages from leadership and/or officials
    • Challenges communicating transparently when messaging changes
  1. Work stress compounded with personal life stressors
    • Financial stress
    • Loss of family, loved ones, friends or coworkers
    • Obligations at home (e.g. children)

Mitigation strategies that MRC units have utilized include:

  1. Warmlines are peer-operated listening/support lines. In one MRC unit, behavioral health team members rotated responsibility, responding to warmline calls during their shifts.

  2. Stress Response Teams are teams dedicated and trained to assess and respond to stress by providing psychological first aid, stress reduction, and additional behavioral health services to survivors, responders, and community members.

  3. Call Back Programs are check-in calls by behavioral health team members to all volunteers after their deployment is complete. This is an effective way to reach people and discuss behavioral health in addition to getting feedback on stressors teams are facing in the field.

  4. Buddy Systems pair workers in similar roles to share responsibility for their partner’s safety and emotional well-being. Built on an evidenced-based approach developed by the military for those in combat situations, the buddy system is proven to decrease stress.

  5. Group Debriefings are led by behavioral health volunteers lead on a periodic basis (e.g., one-hour session monthly). These sessions allow volunteers to review their experiences and actions on deployment to assist with processing stressors.

  6. Careful assessment of ongoing ability to volunteer is the encouragement of volunteers to carefully review their personal and professional priorities and assess their capacity to contribute in a way that doesn’t negatively inhibit their well-being.

COVID-19 has caused anxiety in communities across the country, and MRC units have been working to ensure that they meet both the physical and the behavioral health needs of the communities they serve. Here are two concepts that some MRC units have implemented to help build resilience.

  1. Integrated Behavioral Health is the integration of practices such as acupuncture and ear seed therapy by licensed practitioners. This method of stress relief is typically offered along with traditional behavioral health support.

  2. Cultural Competence Support has been provided by some MRC units for volunteers to understand how to best serve individuals from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds in their communities, including providing behavioral health support.

Addressing the behavioral health consequences of high stress missions is important to fostering psychological safety in the workplace. Sharing best practices, innovative strategies and resources is a critical part of the process of supporting team health and well-being.

Serving communities during health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic can be stressful, but it is often very rewarding. Despite the challenges, many volunteers are proud to serve their communities and really enjoy being part of a team that is making a difference. If you think you may be interested in becoming a part of the MRC, take a few minutes to learn more and find a unit in your area.


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