Feature

Hours after 16-year-old Jeff Weise opened fire at Red Lake High School in Ponemah, Minn.--killing five students, a security guard, a teacher and himself after shooting his grandfather and his grandfather's girlfriend earlier in the day on March 21--the Red Lake Nation put out a call for mental health professionals to direct a mental health response.

When University of North Dakota (UND) psychology professor Doug McDonald, PhD, heard the call, he immediately assembled a crisis-response team of seven psychology graduate students and one undergraduate psychology research assistant, some of whom were from the university's Indians into Psychology Doctoral Education Program (InPsyDE), which McDonald directs. The nine of them then drove 157 miles from UND in Grand Forks, N.D.

McDonald, treasurer of APA's Div. 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues) and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, knew the volunteers needed to understand the reservation's sovereignty, traditions and beliefs. He spent the trip preparing them for the possibility that some tribe members might be wary of outsiders--even those of American-Indian descent.

"The tribe is in charge," McDonald explains. "They have complete say. When people don't understand that, they could easily be doing more harm than good."

Yet, for all his warnings, the Red Lake Nation warmly received McDonald and his team.

"It was clear there were cultural boundaries," says Kenny Jiminez, the undergraduate who assisted the team. "But at the same time they were very welcoming [of us] into their culture."

By the time they returned to the University of North Dakota a week later, they were confident the people of the Red Lake Nation would find the resilience and strength to recover.

Coordinating coping

When McDonald arrived at the reservation, he immediately began working with the directors of mental services from Red Lake and the nearby town of Bemidji.

"Right away we were pulling together immediate, intermediate and long-range plans for the community, so that we knew where we were headed," McDonald says.

McDonald and the other directors established makeshift mental health centers in each of the four communities on the reservation. The co-directors staffed the centers with Red Cross members, McDonald's students and local professional tribal members who had responded to Red Lake's call for helpers to assist people through the initial shock and subsequent grieving process.

"Our work day never ended," McDonald says. "Even when we would leave to go get a sandwich, we would meet parents who we would end up talking to for an hour and a half."

After less than a day, it became clear to the volunteers that the tribe's interrelatedness made the entire community susceptible to shock and grief.

"My tribe has a saying 'Mitakwye Oyasin,' which means 'all my relations' or 'We are all related,'" McDonald says. "And that's the mindset that exists in Red Lake. And it makes everyone's experience hurt a little more."

To cope with the community's grief, McDonald and other volunteers traveled throughout the reservation, meeting with everyone from children to elders to blend American-Indian coping traditions, like participating in communal drum ceremonies, with standard psychological coping techniques, like modeling appropriate coping behavior and cognitive restructuring.

A history of disaster

Despite little formal training in crisis mental health response, McDonald has extensive experience in the area.

"Disaster relief is not something I aspired to even be competent in," McDonald says. "But my proximity to situations keeps bringing me back."

In 1989, his University of North Dakota graduate school adviser headed the initial response team when United Airlines flight 232 crashed on the Sioux Gateway Airport runway in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 110 of its 285 passengers and one of the 11 crew members.

Eight years later, McDonald, who lives 20 miles outside of Grand Forks, N.D., was just one of the 27 homeowners in the area who was not ousted by the flood that displaced 2,500 households and caused $1.5 billion in damage. In turn, as the only psychologist in the area to avoid flood damage, he led the Red River flood crisis mental health response team.

Despite the knowledge McDonald gained from these earlier disaster-relief experiences, Red Lake presented a significant challenge to his impartiality.

"As an Indian, it made it that much harder to maintain objectivity and avoid getting personally involved," he says.

McDonald also struggled with media depictions of Weise as a crazed loner and the tribe as closed society.

"The outside world was trying to resolve their cognitive dissonance about Weise," he says. "For everyone who told us how he dressed in black, we would meet two or three other people who would say, 'He was a good, normal, even brilliant kid.' Other points were taken out of context. At the end of the day we have to be comfortable with that cognitive dissonance, and say, 'We just don't know.'"

McDonald's personal involvement with disaster relief has made him realize that the APA/Red Cross disaster-relief program is a constant work-in-progress.

"Psychologists can do better," he says. "There are not enough of us getting to sites and the ones who are aren't staying there long enough. The Red Cross, APA and state associations also must ensure that those wishing to respond are cross-culturally competent in situations where they can expect to encounter ethnic minorities."

Further Reading

For information, visit APA Warning Signs  or call (877) 274-8787, ext. 135.