I will never forget the words I heard from the TV weatherperson: "This hurricane will be like no other we have experienced in Southern Mississippi."
I had just arrived in Hattiesburg, Miss., two weeks prior to starting my first job as an assistant psychology professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Having little knowledge or experience with hurricanes or disasters, I debated whether to leave or stay and ride the storm out. For a variety of reasons I chose to stay.
"Besides," I thought, "Hattiesburg is far enough away from the Mississippi coast, it will be nothing, right?" Wrong. Hurricane Katrina was more severe than any previous hurricane to hit the area. It affected much of the state of Mississippi and devastated Louisiana and parts of Alabama. Little did we know the wrath that Katrina would bring in its aftermath: universities wiped out, internships canceled, psychology departments devastated.
The campus at which I teach, the University of Southern Mississippi, was lucky. We missed only two weeks of school and sustained minor damage. This however, was not the case at other campuses, and the semester continues to be a difficult road to recovery for many.
I'm confident that the Katrina disaster will change how many of us perceive the world. As psychologists in training, a situation like this often leads to self-reflection and contemplation. For me, this situation emphasized not only the importance of what we do as researchers, educators and clinicians, but the need for us to take care of ourselves. Often we are quick to want to heal others and end up placing our own needs on the back shelf. This was evident in several responses of some of my students who were eager to jump in and help. However, it was one insightful student who said, "I'm not sure if I'm ready to help people. I feel like a victim myself."
To me this statement exemplifies the type of self-reflection needed to be able to care for others. As students, it is easy to get pulled in many directions and forget how to take care of oneself and find balance. Here are some tips students have found helpful in maintaining balance.
Identify your stressors. Think about your responsibilities and what really causes you stress.
Identify your sources of support. Who in your life helps you when you are feeling down or stressed out?
Identify the activities you enjoy. Whether hitting the gym for a vigorous workout or having a relaxing chat with friends and family, it is helpful to figure out what makes you happy.
Develop your action plan. Similar to how one develops an outline for a research study, a class or a treatment plan, it is very helpful to develop your self-care plan. When we do not have something concrete in place, it is easy to push self-care off. Your plan can include identifying stressors, support, how you plan to deal with stressors and who you will enlist to help keep you on track.
THE SILVER LINING
Let's revisit Katrina for a moment. Wise folks say that there is a silver lining to every dark cloud. In my opinion there are several silver linings to this dark cloud.
While surrounded by tragic events, the value of our profession has become increasingly evident. I have seen daily articles or television interviews in which a psychologist is interviewed about mental health issues faced by those affected by the hurricane and linking how psychologists can help through treatment and research.
Another silver lining has come from our professional home. APA and affiliated organizations are very involved in significant efforts to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina. For example, APA is suspending this year's dues statement for members and affiliates who reside in disaster counties designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Similarly, APPIC--the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers--worked feverishly to help displaced interns find sites to complete their internship on time (see "In Katrina's wake," page 12).
The list can go on and on, but it is an example of how our profession and our professional organizations have stepped up and have had a positive impact on a national level. It makes me proud to be in psychology and in APA and APAGS.