Feature

In the weeks after Sept. 11, Victoria Noriega, PhD, director of undergraduate studies in psychology at the University of Miami, noticed that her students were concerned about the terrorist attacks--and felt they had no outlet to discuss their feelings. "They were largely unfamiliar with trauma and loss," she explains. "So I wondered what kind of course could we put together for them?"

Her solution was to tap the resources of more than a dozen of Miami's psychology faculty to offer a new undergraduate psychology course, "The Psychology of Traumatic and Stressful Life Events," this semester. Each class, a guest lecturer addresses a "life event," including child abuse, divorce, cancer, heart disease, natural disaster and war. Noriega teaches intermittent classes tying together the similarities and differences between the traumatic experiences.

The class, which is open to the public on selected Monday evenings and is students-only on Wednesday nights, arranges some of its content to correspond with the psychology department's Community Lecture Series--a movie screening followed by a discussion of the psychological issues raised in the film.

Beyond the University of Miami, an array of psychology departments are offering undergraduate courses on traumatic events, and it appears as though the demand for them is strong in the wake of Sept. 11.

"The inquiring minds of our students want to understand both why this happened and how they can respond to this in a constructive way," explains Jerry Jacobs, PhD, head of the University of South Dakota's Disaster Mental Health Institute.

Craving more information

That high demand is evidenced by South Dakota's "Children and Trauma" class, which was so popular this spring that the psychology department added another section to the course schedule.

"The interest has really spiked," says Gilbert Reyes, PhD, who teaches one of the "Children and Trauma" sections. The class used to draw 25 to 30 students, says Reyes, but this year the interest has doubled, making it the most popular undergraduate course offered at the Disaster Mental Health Institute.

This semester, the university's psychology department has also developed a new seminar course, "Terrorism: psychological aspects and therapeutic strategies." In the class of three graduate and 12 undergraduate students, Reyes is covering the definition of terrorism, debating whether terrorists are "psychologically different" from others, reviewing the group processes at work in terrorist groups and discussing the treatment of those affected by terrorist acts, including the fact that depression is a more common outcome than post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

At the University of Hawaii, psychology professor Anthony Marsella, PhD, is taking a more interdisciplinary approach to the psychology of terrorism in a course co-listed with Peace Studies called, "Terrorism: foundations, history, issues, consequences and response." Marsella and Brien Hallet, PhD, an associate professor of peace studies, are employing guest lecturers to cover the history of terrorism, Islam, American foreign policy, military responses, stress and trauma, the ethics and morality of terrorism, conflict resolution, and architecture and building security factors.

"It's essential to [look at] terrorism from a multidisciplinary point of view because there are so many dimensions to it," says Marsella. "This is an extraordinarily complex topic that has its roots in history, the global economy, the failure of diplomacy and the psychologies of the people involved."

And while the course was closed after 38 undergraduate and 12 graduate students signed up, the classroom is filled just about every class by other students, professors and older adults from the community who are sitting in on Marsella's course just for the experience. "Sept. 11 is a defining moment in history, and it needs to be grasped and somehow given meaning and context," he explains.

While new courses such as Marsella's appear to be popular among students this semester, academicians point out that students were eager to tackle other kinds of stressful or traumatic events before Sept. 11. For example, "Human Response to Natural Disasters," taught by Matt Davis, PhD, an associate psychology professor at Dominican University of California, started out as an occasional one-credit course, but student demand has led Davis to offer a more in-depth, three-credit class on a regular basis.

In the course, Davis covers the societal and individual aspects of disaster preparedness, including building safety codes, zoning ordinances and risk perception, and dispels the myth that people tend to panic during a disaster. In fact, they're more likely to be altruistic, he says. His course also includes geology, climatology and natural disaster history. Lastly, students learn about the psychological impact of a natural disaster, such as PTSD, higher divorce rates, grieving and recovery. He also touches on the differences between coping with natural and man-made disasters.

For natural disasters, he says, there isn't really anyone to blame, but "for technological disasters, someone is really culpable, and that changes the way people deal with those events. Terrorism is even more complex in terms of national allegiances and religious differences."

Meanwhile, cadets at the U.S. Military Academy are learning how to handle stressful events first-hand, on the training grounds as well as in the classroom. The academy's Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, headed up by social psychologist Col. Tom Kolditz, PhD, offers West Point's most popular major--leadership and management studies. Several courses in the major include information on the psychology of stressful and traumatic events, including Kolditz's "Combat Leadership" course, which covers PTSD, sleep deprivation and the grief process, among other things.

"The processes we're trying to home in on have to do with leadership in a situation where people are going to be killed or injured," explains Kolditz. "Leadership under conditions where there is serious personal risk and risk to the people you are leading is very different than leadership in the boardroom."

Useful knowledge

Beyond providing students with a variety of options for study, courses on stressful and traumatic events allow them to explore the topic in greater depth than what's available in the mass media, says Marsella.

Students also show interest because of their own stressful or traumatic experiences, adds associate psychology professor David Lisak, PhD, who teaches "Psychological Trauma" at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. This semester, his class is filled with 35 students, and another 67 are on his waiting list--and he's just one of three professors teaching the class.

Reyes says his terrorism class at the University of South Dakota has met a need for students who wanted to know why terrorist acts such as those of Sept. 11 happened, and what they can do about it.

"Even without Sept. 11, it would be good to have more academic coverage--just so students can understand how to serve their community when something [traumatic] happens," adds Jacobs.

Some students are already putting such knowledge to work. In November and December, seven University of South Dakota undergraduates dropped everything to volunteer with the Red Cross in New York City.

"The things I learned in class made me more aware of how people were dealing with this trauma," says South Dakota psychology student Ken Chiancone, who spent a month on Pier 94 and at a Service Center Two helping to get meals to people waiting in line for assistance services.

Considering that the next natural disaster could be around the corner and the government has warned of potential new attacks, "we have to prepare," says Jacobs. "And part of the way to do that is preparing our leaders of the future to cope with it themselves and to serve their communities."