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South Dakota Institute Helps Prepare for Psychological Damage of Future Terrorist Attacks - 2003-05-25

State and local authorities across the United States have heightened security measures in response to the nation's return to a 'high' terror alert. While Homeland Security officials are trying to prevent new terrorist attacks, agencies like the Red Cross and World Health Organization are hoping to minimize the psychological damage caused by such events. The University of South Dakota's Disaster Mental Health Institute is helping in this effort, training students to help their communities cope with natural and manmade catastrophes.

On the ground floor of the South Dakota Union building, Jerry Jacobs stands in a cramped aisle that used to be hallway before being lined with cubicles and office equipment. The Director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute reviews two wall maps, one of the world, the other of the United States, sprouting dozens of brightly-colored stickpins and flags. "The blue flags are hurricanes, the white flags are floods, yellow flags are storms, the red flags are mass casualty, and the orange flags are fires, and then, the pins are the numerous consultations and training workshops we've done," he says.

Mr. Jacobs strokes his thick, silvery beard and recounts what sounds like a disaster movie marathon. Ground Zero, Flight 800, an F-6 tornado in Oklahoma, an earthquake in Gujarat, India, then he points to a red flag planted near the center of the U.S. map, in northwest Iowa. "We got started here in Sioux City, in 1989, with the crash of Flight 232, and it was really out of that crash, that we proposed the development of a national plan for disaster mental health with the Red Cross and the American Psychological Association," he says.

The Disaster Mental Health Institute is nearing its tenth year. Jerry Jacobs says while disasters and wars have been around for thousands of years, the field of disaster mental health is relatively new. About a dozen students are enrolled in the undergraduate and graduate degree programs, offered through the University's clinical psychology department. Student interest in the Institute increased sharply after the 9-11 attacks, and courses like "Children and Trauma," "Advanced Disaster Response," and "International Disaster Psychology" fill up quickly.

In a nearby classroom, Professor John Elhai talks to roughly thirty students about using psychological first aid. "Sometimes what'll you'll find when using it with trauma victims, is that they'll be a little bit resistant to closing their eyes while you're doing this exercise with them, and that's okay. Think about when we talked about post-traumatic stress disorder, and we talked about the hyper-vigilance that goes along with it," he says.

When a catastrophe occurs, Professor Elhai and other faculty members accompany their students to the disaster site. Using the relaxation and counseling techniques they've learned at the Institute, the students will help traumatized relief workers, witnesses and survivors process their confusion, fear and anger to the point where they can function enough to recover, and find long-term psychological counseling if necessary.

Among the students is Didi Biorn, who says she hopes to return home to southern Africa for her post-graduate work. "Botswana has floods, has droughts, and now lately we have the HIV epidemic," he says. "And though we never talk about it in terms of disaster, in my mind it's a huge disaster."

Her eyes smile through her wire-rimmed glasses and she plays with one of her short, raspberry dreadlocks, as she contemplates becoming a regional Red Cross delegate. "I know seven languages from southern Africa. So I feel like I would be a better candidate to be deployed to those areas and deal with locals in their own culture and their own language and stuff like that," he says.

And Jimmy Butcher, who is currently in the Army reserves, says he plans to use his experiences at the DMHI as a clinical psychologist for the military. He says there's a need for disaster mental health counseling for soldiers in any capacity. "You see oftentimes like in Iraq, there's soldiers who may not be actively involved in combat, say a medical team, and you see the pain and suffering that you don't really see very often in America. And it sometimes can be quite emotional," he says.

Both students were enrolled in the program before 9-11, but say the terrorist attacks have solidified their reasons for being here. Institute Director Jerry Jacobs says many graduates will take on administrative roles with colleges, relief agencies, and disaster response groups, helping shape disaster mental health practices for future catastrophes, natural and man-made.

Red Cross official Susan Hamilton applauds the DMHI's efforts, especially in what she calls an 'uncertain time'. "Unfortunately, I think there is a likelihood that we will have terrorist attacks, and they may or will be of the scale that we've encountered at 9-11. So, yes, we will need people to respond to those catastrophic events. And we need leaders, and Dr. Jacobs' group can create leaders," he says.

And for those who don't want to make a five to six year commitment for a masters or doctorate degree, the Institute offers an intensive summer course in the specialty. Licensed professionals, like psychologists and nurses, can get a graduate certificate showing that they've received advanced training in Disaster Mental Health, in just four weeks.