Robyn Gee on Wednesday, Jun. 15th
Not every college course syllabus comes with the following disclaimer:
Please be aware that some content that will be included in the course may be disturbing to you. If you feel troubled by the material, please contact the instructor and/or the Psychological Counseling Center.
But this is the case in Dr. Karla Vermeulen’s Disaster Psychology course at SUNY New Paltz University. Her course is offered as part of the Interdisciplinary Minor in Disaster Studies. According to the New York Times, the number of emergency management programs in the United States went from 70 in 2001 to 232 currently. Given the recent rush of natural disasters, it’s easy to see why such a major is needed.
Take Elena Brondolo. She was interested in Disaster Studies because of her parents. Her father worked in the NYC Medical Examiner’s office and during the 9/11 aftermath, was busy identifying bodies. Brondolo’s mother is a psychologist who began developing intervention programs for medical examiners and coroners to help them cope with the situations they face on a daily basis.
The students minoring in Disaster Studies, like Brondolo, don’t just sit in a classroom and read theory. They must do a fieldwork placement with the Red Cross or area Emergency Management Offices to complete their program. “I’m certainly not training them in one semester to treat PTSD – but I think they have such awareness of disasters as common events that it’s easy for students to make the connection between what they’re learning and the real-life applicability,” said Professor Vermeulen.
Brondolo explained that disaster relief workers erecting emergency triage centers must anticipate the needs of various populations. “If the Red Cross has created a triage area, it’s important to have stuffed animals so that children have things to hold on to. And for the elderly population, it’s important to find out their medications, and whether they’re too hot or too cold,” she said.
And most of all, Brondolo said disaster responders must listen. “You can’t minimize the person’s problem. You never want to say everything’s fine, or that you understand their problem. Just listen – and tell them they’re having a typical reaction to an atypical event,” said Brondolo. In her class she learned how to identify normal reactions versus extreme reactions. For normal reactions, she and her classmates learned how to administer Psychological First Aid. For extreme reactions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), they can direct people to resources nearby.
Brondolo says a common theme in disaster response is that immediately following the event, there is a strong sense of community that develops in the afflicted area. “But eventually it dies down. After a while, as media coverage dies down, and the help dies down, you don’t hear about it. That energy can’t be sustained because there isn’t always help to push it forward,” she said.
According to Vermeulen, it doesn’t matter whether the disaster was a tornado, a hurricane, a flood, or a fire – one’s response should depend on the degree of trauma it caused the victims. “The type of event is really less relevant than what the person’s experience was, how extensive their losses were, how strong a support network they have, and how they’re treated by others afterward. For all survivors, the early intervention that’s recommended now is Psychological First Aid (PFA).”
Below is a syllabus from a disaster studies course.
Disaster Psych Syllabus Spring 2011