Unsung Heroes

Psychologists: There in a crisis

Pair provides mental help to those affected by disasters

December 1, 2013 

Psychologists Monty Clouse, left, and Killorin Riddell have been working to help people in crisis since 1994.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Doctors Monty Clouse and Killorin Riddell don’t have a lot of free time: between working at Atascadero State Hospital from Monday through Thursday, and volunteering at the San Luis Obispo County American Red Cross chapter after hours those days and many weekends, the couple have little time to themselves.

But that doesn’t stop these two unsung heroes from spending even their vacation time working in the field

“We love it,” Riddell said. “People can have something extraordinary happen to them — and they are resilient and will recover — but they will need help.”

And that’s where they come in: From large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and 9/11, to house fires in Santa Maria, Clouse and Riddell have responded to a number of emergency situations throughout the country, and helped to provide mental help to those affected by disaster.

Clouse and Riddell, both licensed psychologists, became involved in disaster mental health relief for the Red Cross after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. The pair was living in Los Angeles at the time, and was concerned by the impact the earthquake had on their community.

Nearly 20 years later, that concern has turned into a decades-spanning career in helping people in crisis.

After moving to Atascadero in 2006, the duo became co-leads of Disaster Mental Health with the Red Cross. Clouse also serves on the organization’s board of directors.

“We have really loved working with this chapter,” Clouse said. “It’s a relatively smaller chapter but very, very mighty and capable in terms of taking care of many people in the county and in Santa Maria.”

Locally, the pair has overseen responses for the recent hotel fire in Santa Maria in which several “mentally fragile” occupants needed help, as well as a private plane crash in San Luis Obispo during the summer.

They also began training their fellow psychologists on how to perform psychological first aid — a series of immediate procedures and actions that one can perform to help prevent further psychological damage among those affected by a disaster — in the field.

Clouse and Riddell also volunteer in other Red Cross projects, such as setting up shelters in Santa Margarita during fire season.

One of Clouse’s favorite memories comes from that work: While putting the shelter together, he said he was impressed by how many locals stopped by to donate goods and help.

“It was just really, really great to see the community come out and offer that support,” Clouse said.

Riddell’s favorite in-the-field memory is a little farther from home.

While assisting with the Red Cross response to Hurricane George in Puerto Rico, Riddell was tasked with talking with an elderly woman who refused to leave her house, which had been red-tagged by the organization as dangerous, and go to a shelter.

Riddell said she asked the woman one simple question: “What happened to you?”

“She opened up and told her story,” Riddell said. “She had lost her husband six months earlier, and she was terrified since the flood came in.”

Immediately after speaking with Riddell, the woman opened her purse, took a check from the Red Cross and left for the shelter.

“It was just being asked, ‘What happened to you?’ that did that,” Riddell said. “Listening to people’s experiences has taught me so much about how important it is to listen to people.”

Even though their volunteer work takes up a lot of their time — Clouse said they are often woken up in the middle of the night to respond to an apartment fire or small emergency — neither plans on stopping any time soon.

“This is something we expect to be doing as long as we can, and that’s going to be a while,” Clouse said.

HOW TO HELP

Donations can be made to the San Luis Obispo chapter of the American Red Cross at http://www.redcross.org/donate (select the donate locally option to give money only to the SLO chapter).

The Disaster Mental Health team is also looking for licensed psychologists to help its emergency response efforts. If interested, contact the chapter at 543-0696.

THE UNSUNG HERO SERIES

Although The Tribune seeks to celebrate our community’s quiet heroes throughout the year, it’s especially appropriate to do so during the holidays, when we pause to give thanks, gather with friends and family and share the warmth and light that brightens our lives.

These unsung heroes are people who practice the Golden Rule and are passionate about their causes but seek no return for their actions other than the satisfaction that comes with helping others.

By highlighting individuals who unselfishly apply their energy and skills to lighten the burden of others, we hope, first, to offer these community heroes the appreciation they deserve; second, to let those who could use the help know of available resources; and third, to inspire others who are able to help in whatever way they can.

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