Education in Disaster

The Institute for Disaster Mental Health has been featured prominently in the Education Section of the New York Times (Friday, June 10, p. A23) as well as the Times’s global edition, the International Herald Tribune. The article “Colleges Now Offering Education in Disaster” was written by journalist Lisa W. Foderaro who spent two days on the New Paltz campus in March while researching the article and interviewing Institute faculty and students Carlene Pinto, Rebecca Rodriguez and Lindsay Yates, who had experienced firsthand disaster situations: 9/11 and hurricanes Katrina and Fran, respectively.

The Institute for Disaster Mental Health, founded in 2004, is one of only a handful of emergency management programs of its kind in the Northeast. The Institute’s focus on mental health intervention makes it a rarity among the 232 other programs across the nation, according to the Times article.

The Institute works in tandem with mental health, peace keeping and disaster relief professionals locally, statewide, nationally and internationally to deliver education and training in the best practices of disaster mental health to its students and both local and international constituencies.

The Institute offers an interdisciplinary minor with an increasing enrollment of 68 students, 28 of whom graduated in May 2011 and a Graduate Certificate in Disaster Mental Health for students in the graduate counseling program. In addition, the Institute is spearheading a training program for graduate students at Ben Gurion University in Israel and for Israeli and Palestinian mental health professionals from Gaza and the West Bank who want to help their traumatized populations.

“The students and I do this work and are passionate about it because they have an opportunity to help people at what may be the most important time in their lives,” said founding Director Professor James Halpern.

The article praised the Institute’s unique focus on the mental health of disaster’s victims. As the brainchild of former Dean of the School of Liberal Art & Sciences, Gerald Benjamin, the Institute marshaled the expertise of Professor James Halpern and Associate Professor Phyllis Freeman in psychology and mental health.

Benjamin was impressed by Halpern’s significant work with victims of 9/11 suffering from psychological and emotional trauma. Understanding the benefits of strong collaborations between College and community and an emerging global need for such a program, Benjamin asked Halpern to bring his disaster management work into the College.

The Institute is exceptional in that it trains students in the best practices of disaster mental health. It focuses on quick intervention providing victims with a supportive environment. Disaster Mental Health workers help victims feel safe and calm while attending to their immediate physical needs such as food, water and shelter. According to Visiting Assistant Professor Karla Vermeulen in psychology, this positive environment encourages victims to connect with their own natural healing process as opposed to debriefing, which forces victims to talk about and, in may cases, relive the trauma.

While most emergency management programs are found in large universities, the Times points out the benefits of this program in New Paltz’s liberal arts setting. Students receive a comprehensive, interdisciplinary understanding of emergency management allowing them to more effectively serve victims of terrorism and natural disaster.

Their curriculum includes a cross-section of disciplines, such as concepts of death in America, global terrorism, media and geography combined with hands-on internship placements in Emergency Services centers in Orange and Ulster counties and with the American Red Cross.

“The work can be challenging and difficult but also satisfying and meaningful when you can provide basic and critical assistance to someone who has just lost everything. People can watch disaster unfold on TV and can feel sad or helpless, but we actually can make some small difference,” Halpern said.