Two experiences drove first-year clinical psychology student Zeno Franco to devote his psychology career to terrorism and disaster relief: As a teenager, he volunteered at a hospital to provide outreach to injured Afghan freedom fighters evacuated from Afghanistan. And on a trip abroad in 2001, he witnessed the effects of poverty in southern China. These experiences deepened his interest in addressing the precursors of societal degradation, including terrorism and natural disasters.
"Political unrest, ethnic violence, war-all of these problems lead to destabilizing economies, and this in turn has a profound psychological impact within society," Franco says.
The realization led him to the clinical psychology doctoral program at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology (PGSP), where he works at the National Center on Disaster Psychology and Terrorism, housed at PGSP and at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Hospital Care System. The center, which also teams with Stanford University, allows him to do research, curriculum development, grant-writing, public policy and clinical work on terrorism.
And as an added bonus, Franco earned one of 50 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) fellowships for graduate students pursuing studies on counter-terrorist measures. The fellowship offers three years of full tuition support and a $27,600 yearly stipend. As a DHS fellow in one of four slots designated for psychology graduate studies, Franco works at the center and will complete anti-terrorism-related summer internships each year at a government agency or university research center involved with homeland security.
IMPROVING RESPONSE TO TERRORISM
As his first task at the center, Franco is developing programs that train government and health professionals to respond to terrorist attacks.
For example, he worked with a team of classmates—Glenn Sullivan, Eric Crawford, Jennifer Housely and Noah Bruce—to develop a psychology of terrorism curriculum for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School's Homeland Security master's program. The 10-week course, which began in December, is designed for mid-career professionals in federal, military and other agencies involved in homeland security.
To prepare the curriculum, Franco and his classmates reviewed research on such topics as the psychological consequences of terrorism, psychological treatments for terrorism victims, terrorist psychology and fear management. A large part of the curriculum addresses the treatment of victims in mass-casualty events—one of Franco's main research interests.
"One of the things that is necessary in disaster relief and reconstruction efforts is a long-term commitment to a community," Franco says. "Generally after a disaster, the relief workers are there for a few months, triage the situation, and go home. Recovery many times may be a decade-long process, and it requires a long-term involvement.…If we make these types of commitments, we can prevent cycles of violence, which ultimately lead to terrorism."
Franco has also taken a lead in helping the center develop research programs that address ways for psychologists, health professionals and the public to anticipate and respond to terrorist attacks, says Franco's adviser Larry Beutler, PhD, chair of the PGSP PhD program and a director at the center. Franco also works closely with center directors James Breckenridge, PhD, chief psychologist at Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Hospital, and Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, of Stanford University.
In particular, Franco hopes to explore whether different kinds of terrorist targets spur different psychological responses, and how mass media warning and information messages can attenuate the effects of panic and fear.
Franco has also been coordinating grant proposals with PGSP, the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System and the University of California, San Francisco, for developing research and public policy projects on the effectiveness of psychological treatments in mass-casualty events.
Studying these treatments is important, Franco says, especially before millions of dollars are spent on treatments that have not been scientifically tested.
The unique training opportunities that the center offers are one reason Franco chose to attend PGSP. For example, Franco co-authored with Beutler a chapter in the forthcoming book "Psychology of Terrorism" (Oxford University Press) on training mental health professionals for disaster and terrorism response. The book will be published later this year or in early 2005.
The center offers clinical psychology students in both the PGSP PhD program and the PGSP-Stanford PsyD consortium a chance to act as community liaisons in disaster relief by interacting with international experts, public health officials, police and fire chiefs and policy-makers at the federal, state and local levels, says Bruce Bongar, PhD, the center's executive director. APA recently recognized the center with one of its 2004 Awards for Innovative Practices in Graduate Education.
"Terrorism is pure psychology—it is not about injuring or even killing others," Beutler says. "It is about instilling fear and inhibiting free movement. The defense against terrorism, in the final analysis, is also not a protection against being killed or injured. It is a defense about being afraid."
Franco's work at the center will teach him about the effects of terror on human behavior and prepare him for helping the public protect themselves from being terrorized and cope with fear, Beutler says.
Moreover, Franco's DHS fellowship deepens the center's connection to high-level government efforts to combat terrorism and respond to terrorist events, Bongar notes.
"It is our hope that Zeno and the other students at the center will be part of the next generation of leaders in psychology who are at the forefront of psychologists' contributions to the war on terrorism," Bongar says.