State Leadership Conference

Mental health disaster response used to entail delivering psychological support over a short period of time-usually about two weeks.

However, recent disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have demonstrated that, in addition to immediate aid, survivors need long-term, culturally sensitive mental health resources from state disaster-response networks, noted speakers at the 2006 State Leadership Conference (SLC).

"As we've seen with Katrina, aid continues to be needed in the region and will for some time," said Margie Schroeder, director of the APA Practice Directorate's Disaster Response Network (DRN). "What kind of aid can psychologists provide, and what is currently being done out there that might be a model for us looking ahead?"

Planning for the long haul

In response to Schroeder's question, panelists in SLC sessions on long-term aid and diversity considerations shared the following insights:

  • Know your community resources. "If your disaster-response network isn't already involved with groups in your community, do it now," said Rita Justice, PhD, DRN coordinator for the Texas Psychological Association (TPA). Justice said that the TPA DRN's connections with first responders, city and county emergency management groups and volunteer groups provided critical information on what resources were available and where. For instance, when Houston's Astrodome took in a mass transfer of 100,000 New Orleans evacuees, the DRN was called in to organize the mental health response and coordinate the services supplied by many volunteer groups. Members of the DRN also participated in the mayor's daily briefings on handling of the crisis and afterward coordinated with numerous governmental, nongovernmental and faith-based groups taking on long-term planning for the survivors.

  • Get the word out however you can. Educate teachers, doctors, volunteers and religious and community leaders about trauma and how they can help survivors, panelists advised. Also make trauma information on symptoms and how to get help available to those who don't show up in shelters and hospitals, suggested Nancy Gordon Moore, PhD, chair of the Council of Executives of State and Provincial Psychological Associations and executive director of the Kentucky Psychological Association. She found, for example, that reaching out to African-American churches was a good way to make contact with people.

  • Consider diversity. Understand survivors' worldview and how it may affect their behavior, said Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, EdD, a counseling and psychology associate professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. For example, some members of minority groups have a culturally imbued mistrust of the police or government, and this may make them less likely to seek help. Language barriers can also pose a problem, said Dass-Brailsford, noting there was a lack of Spanish-speaking relief workers for Latino survivors. The lesson, she said, is to provide a more diverse group of counselors and other volunteers. Kevin Washington, PhD, a member of the APA Board of Directors Emergency Task Force on Multicultural Training, presented workshop participants with a recorded song and video of New Orleans evacuees that highlighted the plight of poor African-American survivors. Participants discussed ways cultural knowledge and awareness can make a difference in offering aid.

  • Generate a long-term mental health plan. Katrina survivors who were evacuated to Georgia continue to face challenges building new lives, which can trigger depression and despair, noted Betsy Gard, PhD, DRN coordinator for the Georgia Psychological Association. In response to this need, the Georgia DRN has established a program call Project Cope, which is compiling a list of mental health professionals willing to work pro bono with Katrina survivors. The group hopes to match providers with individuals or families and encourage them to work together.

  • Train more responders. Increase the number of practitioners trained for disaster situations to avoid shortages in major disasters like Katrina, panelists advised. With this in mind, the Kentucky Psychological Association has set up a disaster-training program accessible through 15 telehealth conference sites statewide. Participants learn about different considerations for treating children, adults and older adult victims and receive an introduction to diversity issues in trauma treatment. The training is free, and the association has sent flyers to more than 7,000 mental health professionals in the state.

Wide-ranging effects

Many states have felt the effects of Katrina-even ones as far away as North Dakota. Kit O'Neill, PhD, DRN coordinator for the North Dakota Psychological Association, noted that although only 86 survivors evacuated to the state, 50 to 70 local Red Cross volunteers served in the gulf region and many local Red Cross staffers recruited volunteers and raised funds.

All of these activities strained the state's limited resources and caused shortages of DRN members. North Dakota is now rethinking its disaster plans, determined to be ready for future emergencies.

Readiness is key, agreed all of the presenters. As Dass-Brailsford said, "Helping requires more than good intentions."

Further Reading

  • La Greca, A.M., Silverman, W.K., Vernberg, E.M., & Roberts, M.C. (Eds.). (2002). Helping children cope with disasters and terrorism. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Hays, P.A., & Iwamasa, G.Y. (2006). Culturally responsive cognitive-behavioral therapy: Assessment, practice, and supervision. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.