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MU to Create Terrorism and Disaster Center with $2.4 Million Grant

Mental health providers will be trained to respond to emotional aftermath of natural and man-made disasters

Nov. 06, 2012

Story Contact(s):
Timothy Wall, walltj@missouri.edu, 573-882-3346

By Kate McIntyre

COLUMBIA, Mo. – More than 70 people have been killed, millions are without power and several thousand have lost their homes in the severe storm known as Hurricane Sandy. Relief efforts will provide for victims’ immediate needs, such as housing, food and water, but the emotional consequences of natural disasters are long term and not understood very well. A University of Missouri disaster communication expert is using a $2.4 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to establish a Terrorism and Disaster Center (TDC) that will train mental health providers to aid communities before and after natural and man-made disasters.

Assistant Communication Professor J. Brian Houston, co-director of the TDC, says staff will focus on mental and behavioral health preparedness, recovery and resilience in children, families and communities affected by disasters. Past research has emphasized responding to the immediate aftermath of disasters and terrorism, but the center will examine the long-term emotional repercussions on victims who are left to cope and rebuild after national media, politicians and disaster relief workers leave their communities.

“In the immediate aftermath we see a honeymoon phase in which other communities and national media rally around disaster victims,” Houston said. “After that phase, survivors may experience disillusionment as they try to cope with a new, altered reality without their loved ones or homes and no longer receive widespread attention and expressions of sympathy.”

A social worker at the center will train school teachers, counselors and mental health practitioners in Joplin, Kansas City, St. Louis and New Orleans to develop, implement and evaluate crisis interventions and resources that help communities prepare for natural disasters and terrorist acts. Houston says the strategies used in disasters also will benefit victims of perpetual violence in communities with high crime rates.

“Often people want to talk about crises and then move on, but victims directly affected may still need to process what happened,” Houston said. “People will move on from Hurricane Sandy, but storm victims will be recovering for a long time. People in Joplin, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are still recovering today.”

Houston says TDC researchers from multiple disciplines at MU will investigate the impact of social capital, which is the quality of community relationships; communication among peers and their leaders; economic resources; and community competence, which is the ability to problem-solve; on crisis responses so experts can develop interventions to build communities’ resilience before more frequent, severe disasters.

“From the Sept. 11 attacks to Hurricane Katrina, the United States has experienced a wide variety of disasters in the 21st century, and it is unlikely that the future will be easier for us or the rest of the world,” Houston said. “The more we know about how to prepare and respond to crises, the sooner survivors will be able to recover.”

The grant is the largest the Department of Communication, located in the MU College of Arts and Science, has received. The funding for the center, designated as a category II center in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, will continue until Sept. 30, 2016.

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