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Mental relief is on the way
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By Valerie Sartor

Stephanie Tebow didn't hesitate an instant after the devastating May 12 earthquake struck in China's Sichuan Province. "I've been counseling people for over 25 years now, I got my MA in counseling back in the States long ago. I started volunteering after the earthquake to help out because it is simply the right thing to do," she said.

"Right now, in conjunction with the Red Cross and Heart to Heart my team and I are training people, ranging from college age kids to seniors. They all are going to counsel victims and relief workers who have experienced the earthquake."

Ms. Tebow is affiliated with the American organization AGAPE and also with BICF (Beijing International Christian Foundation). "With AGAPE we have been training counselors on the Chinese side for several years now. We've found that the need for counseling services is very great in China.

"It started with the SARs outbreak in 2003 but people are needed especially now with the May 12 earthquake. Together with BICF I started out counseling ex-pats but currently we're also training people to become counselors so that they can help out with the disaster in Sichuan. My job right now regarding the earthquake is to conduct basic counseling and to train other volunteers to be active listeners. It's very important for people to be able to recount their experiences, to assure people that what they’re feeling is normal. If a victim buries feelings it can come out later as anger or depression or even post-traumatic-stress-syndrome (PTSS). We try to help people to work through their emotions to avoid problems later."

Ms. Tebow has already made a few trips to Sichuan volunteering with the Red Cross. In Beijing she has been leading two-day seminars to train others to help with counseling. "In the US it's two half days to get certified to learn the skills of an active listener," she said, "but in China it takes a bit longer – 2 full days - because I am working through a translator, so everything has to be said clearly and then translated. I've trained about 1,200 people in the last five weeks, I'd guess."

In China counseling is still a relatively new idea. "But in the US people go looking for counselors and it's very acceptable to say: 'Today I'm seeing my counselor'. Here in China people are more hesitant; they don't want to be perceived as weak, especially the men. Fortunately things are changing. I know that the government is providing counseling to soldiers who are dealing with challenges in the epicenter region."

Emotional needs often vary. Ms. Tebow said that some people need less counseling than others, and some people will get counseling and then go help others, thus assisting someone else while aiding in their own emotional processing. "And children are quite resilient. If they get counseling early on and if they can feel safe and secure again they will recover well. Of course they’ll still feel afraid if they feel another earth tremor but they won't walk around in fear and anxiety if their needs are being met. The problem is that the older we are the harder it is for humans to cope with change," she explained.

Not everyone receives the same emotional impact. Some adults, if they have been through a previous crisis situation, may have a stronger emotional trauma. "And everyone goes through the grief process," said Ms. Tebow. "There are five known stages of grieving: The first is denial. Without counseling that can last for years and years. The second is anger and shock; we feel it's important to acknowledge anger and release it appropriately. Then the third is bargaining: some people may try to make deals with the fates or gods or donate money to temples, for example. The fourth stage is depression and the fifth is acceptance. Different people take different times going through these steps. Counseling is meant to assist someone in pain as he or she undergoes this process."

Ms. Tebow and her team members also feel it important for themselves to get counseling as well. Counselors in Sichuan listen to many difficult stories and they feel for the victims, so they must also be able to tell someone else what they’re feeling to process the emotions in a healthy way.

"We think that we'll be doing volunteer work with Heart-to-Heart and the Red Cross for at least three years," Ms. Tebow said. "I'll keep on training my Chinese friends and I'll also help foreign aid workers who go out in the field. I'm definitely not in it for the money. This kind of work satisfies my inner life; my day job is actually teaching business at the Chemical University in Beijing."

Stephanie Tebow can be reached at: 13552401941 or sttebow@yahoo.com.

(China.org.cn June 13, 2008)

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