Stepan Vymetal - disaster counselling behind the scenes

Stepan Vymetal

Rob Cameron's guest in this week's One on One is Stepan Vymetal, chief psychologist at the Czech Interior Ministry. Stepan belongs to a team responsible for post-traumatic stress support for the Czech police force. He also co-ordinates psychological assistance for Czech Airlines, and is a member of the World Association for Disaster and Emergency medicine. He's worked with traumatized people after the 2002 floods, the 2004 tsunami in South East Asia, and the 2005 terrorist attacks in Egypt.

Stepan, why did you become involved in this line of work?

"Why? Maybe the reasons have something to do with my background, because my grandfather was in a concentration camp, and I was extremely interested in how people can cope with tragedies, how they can survive, and so on."

So there was a personal aspect to the reasons for you doing this kind of work.

"That was the personal aspect. But the professional aspect was from studies. I was interested in the field of disaster, polypsychology and so on."

We're sitting in a room in your country cottage, a very long way from Prague and your work. It's an idyllic, beautiful scene: is it true to say that if you're involved in this kind of work - disaster counselling, stress and so on - that you have to regularly get away from it?

"Yes, it's very important to relax at the weekend. The work is sometimes hard, sometimes stupid - paperwork etc. It's important to have a quiet place, without people, in the countryside, to spend some time with my family and my wife."

Tell me exactly what you do.

"Exactly? I am head of the psychology section at the Ministry of Interior, and we are responsible for assessment in police and firemen recruitment, we're responsible for methods and making conceptions for the police and firemen. That's one part. Another part is counselling, support, post-traumatic intervention teams - care for police and fire teams."

This is because people like policemen and firemen see some very terrible things, and experience some very stressful situations.

"Yes, of course. Some professions are very close to disasters, to tragedies, and the people need some decontamination of that stress."

You deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. What is it exactly?

"Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder comes later, not during the disaster itself. You start feeling different, you think about different things than before it. We have special teams, and we work with policemen after strange situations, after horrible situations. And this is prevention of PTSD."

So it's about cleansing yourself of all the stressful things that you've experienced and all the terrible things that you've seen.


Photo: CTK
This idea of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is this a modern idea that we've invented, or did people have PTSD in the middle ages, hundreds of years ago?

"I think people had this reaction in the past too. I think it's a normal reaction to tragedy. I don't think it's something new."

Do you personally visit disaster zones - Indonesia after the tsunami for example - or is your work more of a "desk job" here in the Czech Republic?

"My work is mostly here in the Czech Republic, but I have some experience in the field, from Iraq, for example. We worked with Czech tourists who had been evacuated after the Egypt bombings, at the airport."

So what did that situation look like?

"We started a special psychological helpline for the families of Czech tourists, who were waiting with no information about them. We had one psychologist on the evacuation flights, who worked with the personnel in the aircraft, journalists going to Egypt, and of course with the people who were returning to Prague after this attack."

You've recently produced a book called "Tragedies and Journalists", featuring advice by Czech journalists and aid workers about how to work in hostile environments and disaster zones. Whose idea was it?

"It was my friend's idea - the co-author. She came and asked me if we could create this book, but the book was inspired by the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma. It isn't new, but was developed mainly after 9-11. We co-operated with Czech journalists, Czech war correspondents. The book isn't only for journalists, it's also for NGOs, social workers working in disaster situations and so on."

What is your own most distressing experience in disaster counselling?

"It was after the tsunami. We were working with families whose children had died."

And what effect do you think that had on you? Did you find it difficult to deal with?

"It wasn't a problem during the situation, at the airport. It was later, when I was thinking about it, when I realised these families had no control over the events around them."

Do you find working so close to stress and disasters has an effect on you yourself? Do you absorb the stress around you?

"I don't think about it very much. But it's very important to speak about my experiences with my colleagues, and I have an external supervisor too. The main support is from my wife and from my family. And my friends."