Cover Story

When Flight 587 crashed in Queens, N.Y, on Nov. 12, 2001, Gerard Jacobs, PhD, supported a mourning community at its limit--and found solace in their response. Worn out from daily funerals honoring neighbors who had died in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center just two months earlier, the community put aside its own pain and consoled families of the crash victims with hot cocoa and baked goods during a site visit after the memorial service.

Jacobs, who assisted in the Queens relief effort, says it was a most awe-inspiring moment, and a good example of the importance of teaching people in disaster situations how to care for one another.

"That level of reaching out to people in need even when you're in need yourself is certainly one of the most powerful things I've seen happen," says Jacobs, director of the University of South Dakota's Disaster Mental Health Institute, which he founded in 1993.

As a top expert in disaster psychology, Jacobs has participated in nearly two dozen major disaster relief efforts, including Sept. 11 and the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi. As APA's consultant after the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, Jacobs trained local mental health workers in Thailand, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. He was one of the first national consultants for disaster mental health for the American Red Cross and is the recipient of this year's APA International Humanitarian award.

He's now using his experience in disaster psychology to develop a mental health-care model that uses distance technology to provide long-term psychological support to returning military, many of whom are located far from a veteran's facility or military base. But his ultimate goal is to make psychological first aid as common as physical first aid. To that end, he is writing a book on the most common mental health complications following a disaster, and ways community members can help treat acute stress in trauma situations--by providing comfort, identifying immediate needs and sharing information about coping in times of distress, for example.

Psychological first aid, says Jacobs, "doesn't take mental health professionals out of the mix. It just limits their use to cases where their expertise is particularly needed."

Pursuing such a major change while helping people in need can be draining. But whenever Jacobs feels overstretched, he hearkens back to that cold November visit in New York.

"I always try and think about that night when I'm at the end of my rope," says Jacobs. "It helps me reach out a little further."

 

--A. Cynkar