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As a field devoted to advancing public welfare, psychology has a long history of providing assistance when disaster strikes. And increased public attention to disasters has led to a swell in requests for education and training on these issues, says Kit O'Neill, PhD, psychology professor at North Dakota State University. She says the field of disaster mental health is eager for experts to meet the public demand for more information.

"There are plenty of opportunities to develop your career quickly in this field right now," says O'Neill, APA's Disaster Response Network (DRN) coordinator for North Dakota. "Just in the past three weeks, I've been called on to give five talks on disaster psychology topics."


Today's 24-hour news stations, and their extensive coverage of natural and man-made catastrophes, have made disasters more salient than ever, says disaster psychology specialist Gilbert Reyes, PhD, associate dean for clinical training at Fielding Graduate University.

"No one who sees a disaster is unaffected by it."

Susan Silk APA's Disaster Response Network

"Disasters just weren't always covered by the media to the extent that they are now," says Reyes, who chairs the Div. 56 (Trauma) Disaster Relief Committee and provided mental health consultations and training after the 1998 U.S Embassy bombings in Nairobi, as well as after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Along with the increase in disaster coverage comes a deeper public recognition of the need for mental health services for victims-and a higher demand for training in how to provide them. Even seasoned psychologists seek advice from their disaster mental health colleagues on how to help clients affected by sudden trauma-a home fire or the unexpected loss of a child, for instance-says Susan Silk, PhD, APA's DRN coordinator for Michigan, who also helped facilitate mental health services in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings.

"They're recognizing that some of the things we do in disaster mental health speak to the general issue of acute loss," Silk says.


In addition to providing direct assistance to disaster victims, psychologists are often called on to serve as advisers during a community's disaster response, says Silk, and many volunteer their services through APA's DRN and other groups. After the Virginia Tech shootings, for example, Silk let the school's student counseling center provide the day-to-day support to students while she helped school administrators figure out how long students might need to be out of classes, and she advised parents and faculty how to help students deal with their grief and anger.

"That's often what's needed if you're a disaster mental health professional-a broad outline of what needs to be done," says Silk. "It's not all about providing the hand-holding or the direct service."

Disaster mental health specialists may also serve as consultants, researchers and educators in the field. A key goal is to teach communities the importance of psychological first aid for the most common mental health complications following a disaster, says Gerard A. Jacobs, PhD, founder of the University of South Dakota's Disaster Mental Health Institute (DMHI), one of the nation's only clinical psychology training programs offering a disaster mental health specialization.


Since service work in disaster psychology is primarily pro bono, most psychologists with an interest in providing mental health assistance in disasters also pursue other interests full time-many as private practitioners. Other than in academia, there are few jobs for psychologists in which disaster mental health can be made into a paying career, says Reyes. There, the median salary for a full professor of a U.S. doctoral department of psychology is around $96,000, according to a 2006 APA Faculty Salary Survey.


With the exception of DMHI, the number of graduate school programs that provide thorough training in disaster mental health is limited, says Brigham Young University psychologist Richard Heaps, PhD, DRN coordinator for Utah. But many schools now offer master's-level courses in disaster psychology, and students who want to volunteer at disaster sites should take a crisis intervention course and make sure they have a solid understanding of how to serve diverse communities, advises Jacobs.

Students who plan to make disaster mental health their primary focus-and want to get paid for it-are unlikely to make a living providing direct mental health services, says Reyes. Instead, he recommends that students consider careers in academic and research settings or by providing consultations or training. He says the field is in its "rapid growth of knowledge" stage, and that graduate students can help move the field forward through research and education, not only in the direct service role.

Reyes suggests that students combine coursework in disaster mental health with provocative dissertations that address important questions in the field-how the psychological impact of a disaster changes over time and what are the best interventions to efficiently and effectively help people affected by disasters, for instance. By studying these issues, psychologists can "become bridges to the higher continuum of care," says Jacobs.

Fieldwork experience in disaster mental health-while highly desirable-can be difficult to get, because the Red Cross and other organizations require psychologists to be licensed before they can intervene in a crisis, says Reyes. It's not impossible though. In some situations, graduate students may provide services if they are supervised by licensed psychologists trained in disaster mental health, but this requires a large time commitment on the part of the faculty and students, says Jacobs, who has supervised graduate students at a number of disaster sites. Most often, a graduate student's best chance to gain experience in a disaster is to go through the Red Cross's general disaster training , which offers an overview of the different volunteer positions, says clinical psychologist Rebecca Thomley, PsyD, Minnesota's DRN coordinator.

"Every function is important when you're in a disaster, whether you're delivering meals or helping people figure out where they're going to stay," says Thomley.

Jacobs also recommends that students become familiar with the Inter-Agency Standing CommitteeGuidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings , which explain the dangers of attempting to provide trauma support without proper training in a community's culture, religion and world views.


Seeing how small acts of kindness can make such a difference is a draw for many into the field of disaster mental health, says Magali Laitem, a psychology master's student at North Dakota State University, who helped provide support with O'Neill after a tornado hit the state earlier this year. The excitement of helping people who really need her keeps her volunteering, she says.

But that type of emotional experience and intense environment is not for everyone, says Silk.

"Disasters are a real hot house," she says. "There's a lot going on all at once, and it may be very difficult to concentrate."

For that reason, it's important that students gain at least some mental health experience-in counseling and crisis intervention, for example-to understand the nature of disaster situations, says Heaps. Such experiences may also help students recognize when someone is experiencing more difficulty than is common with acute stress, says Silk.

Finally, the intensity of disaster mental health can be very emotionally draining, so students need to take their own mental health into consideration during trauma situations, she says.

"No one who sees a disaster is unaffected by it," she says. "Students must make sure to get the support they need before turning around andproviding support for others."

What are the growth areas in psychology?

gradPSYCH takes a look in this occasional series on areas where opportunities abound.

“No one who sees a disaster is unaffected by it.”

Susan Silk
APA’s Disaster Response Networ