Counseling Today, From the President

Disasters and us

Cirecie West-Olatunji January 2, 2014

CericieDisasters are on the rise, including both human-made and natural disasters. To clarify, human-made disasters include terrorist acts, mass shootings, industrial errors and epidemics, whereas natural disasters involve events such as hurricanes, cyclones, fires and floods

The idea that we will see a steady stream of human and material loss is not a topic we want to contemplate. Yet it is imperative that we take time to educate ourselves to prepare for future disasters. More important, we need to consider the training necessary to prepare professional counselors to respond to individuals, families and communities affected by disasters. Training for mental health disaster response is labor intensive, yet we often only think about it after a disaster strikes. So, when we need a cadre of well-prepared counselors and other mental health professionals, they may not be adequately prepared.

In considering the lessons learned after Hurricane Katrina, we need to prepare for catastrophic disasters with more enduring effects. Additionally, the concept of recovery needs to be reconsidered as being much longer than previously believed. Finally, we learned that culture plays a much more important role in disaster interventions than previously thought. Regardless of your opinions about the role of CACREP in advancing the counseling profession, the organization is to be applauded for insisting that counselor training include content in the area of crisis and disaster training. Unfortunately, few programs have taken the call to develop courses and course content that specifically addresses competence in the area of disaster counseling seriously.

Like many counselors deployed to the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, I was significantly affected by my involvement with the area’s residents. Moreover, I began to reflect on how I was training my students and asked myself if what our program was doing was sufficient. I concluded that we needed to do more. I subsequently designed an outreach trip to New Orleans, with seven of our students spending a week working with teachers and parents at a K-8 public school prior to its reopening. The outcomes of that trip have informed my understanding of disaster counseling training and created a new trajectory in my research.

What is so important about this work? For one, counselors are uniquely trained to provide culturally informed interventions. Second, our profession prioritizes ecosystemic influences. Thus, we are situated and primed to design interventions that employ community strengths and foster resilience. Finally, counselors are trained to emphasize client and community empowerment, which supports the sustainability of any interventions that we implement or oversee.

Engaging in disaster counseling provides counselors with the opportunity to participate in the global discussion about best practices for service delivery to disaster-affected communities. This is a chance for us, through our research, to define evidence-based training for disaster counseling. Without our voices being included in the conversation, we run the risk of others dictating a model for disaster counseling that is void of our core assumptions such as humanism, prevention, a developmental focus, client empowerment and holism.

We can no longer remain silent as communities experience high death tolls and major material losses in disaster after disaster. We must take a stand and inform the mental health community about what works. I implore seasoned professional counselors and supervisors to commit themselves to joining the conversation and articulating best practices in disaster counseling. I urge counselor trainees to raise their voices and demand that training for disaster counseling be offered at their institutions and professional conferences. I ask my colleagues in counselor education to create outreach experiences to train students to enter communities and develop culture-centered disaster counseling interventions. Whether these immersion experiences are situated across town or across the seas is of lesser importance. What matters is that we demonstrate a commitment to decreasing the negative impact of disasters on human lives. I believe we can make a difference.

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