Institute for Disaster Mental Health: Lessons From 20 years of Disaster Mental Health

Summer 2021

Preview of Multicultural & Diversity Section (p. 17)
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Amy Nitza & Andrew O’Meara

Section Editor: Claire J. Starrs

THE INSTITUTE FOR DISASTER MENTAL HEALTH (IDMH) provides lessons from two decades of disaster response. IDMH was founded shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz to support the ongoing mental health and disaster response needs of the World Trade Center attacks. Through seeking to address the diversity of disaster mental health demands in the region, state, nation, and the global community, all those impacted by disaster and trauma may have access to the mental health support they need. To accomplish this goal, leadership advances the field of disaster mental health and trauma response through training, research, consultation, and service. By working to establish and disseminate best practices, we can ensure that disaster mental health services are evidence-supported and culturally sensitive.

IDMH supports a disaster studies minor, which focuses on events of natural, technological, and human-induced origin and how they affect individuals, communities, organizations, and the nation. Recognizing the multidisciplinary nature of disaster studies, courses highlight scholarship and practice related to disaster and trauma mitigation and prevention, response, support, recovery, treatment, and policy formulation and planning, as well as the implications of these events across various levels. The American Red Cross deems those completing the minor as certified responders.

The minor’s capstone course places students at local disaster response agencies, allowing students to complete their field work requirement by responding to an acute disaster. These travel courses have taken students to the southern United States and the Caribbean, including trips to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017, in collaboration with the Governor’s Office of the State of New York (see image in upper-right). With the focus on Puerto Rico’s ongoing recovery efforts post-Maria, followed by a series of earthquakes that struck the island in 2020, and then the COVID-19 pandemic, IDMH has become more involved in providing professional trainings and intervention plans to mental health professionals and educators. UNICEF USA, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, the Puerto Rico Department of Education, and the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico, and IDMH have been involved in a multitude of response interventions on the island over the last two years. Included in these interventions was the development of the Creating a Trauma-Informed Environment for Students curriculum. This curriculum was developed in English and Spanish, included a manual for educators, and a train-the-trainer manual to equip mental health professionals to provide training to educators. Trainers were encouraged to add culturally relevant information and examples to the training curriculum and allowed the trainers to deliver the final training to educators directly in Spanish. The conclusion of this project saw all 25,000 public school teachers across Puerto Rico trained in the curriculum. This allowed for broad implementation of early interventions for youth at risk for developing serious mental health disorders following the multiple disasters that the island had experienced. [Continue…]