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Psychologists take U.N. trip for mental health

The Lehigh contingent—(from left to right) Anju Kaduvettoor, Arnold Spokane, Tina Richardson and Yoko Mori—outside the U.N. Building.

During their trip to the United Nations, Lehigh psychology professors and students heard one message clearly: Too few psychologists are trained to handle natural disasters.

Arnold Spokane, who attended the Oct. 11 briefing, could not agree more. The professor of education and psychology discovered that he was ill-equipped to cope with trauma he saw during his two trips to the Gulf Coast for Hurricane Katrina relief back in 2005 and 2006.

Even after training and enlisting as a Disaster Mental Health Volunteer for the American Red Cross, Spokane “always takes away one disturbing incident” every time he volunteers, he says.

Universities and colleges need to prepare psychologists to work with disasters, said one of five experts at the briefing entitled “The Psychological Impact of Natural Disasters.”

“It’s important to have more training programs to do this effectively,” said Gerard Jacobs, director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute at the University of South Dakota. “We need to have more educational institutions taking on this part.”

Lehigh has already responded to this need. Last year, Spokane created a class on disaster and mental health. This June, the Mental Health First Response course will be held on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and is open to select undergraduates, graduates and Gulf Coast mental health workers. For the first time, students will alternate days of volunteer work with class time.

To prepare for his course, Spokane hoped to learn about international disaster response efforts from the U.N. briefing. “I wanted to see if the same principles applied on an international level,” he says.

He learned that international relief requires extra sensitivity to cultural differences. But both “struggle with the fact that there is little hard evidence to guide them in the best practices,” he says.

Another layer to the college experience

Another professor and two students also attended the briefing. Tina Richardson, associate professor and Counseling Psychology program coordinator, formed contacts that may assist her research. “I was able to get names, and a chance to hear some of the things going on around the world,” she says.

After attending the briefing, both Yoko Mori and Anju Kaduvettoor, psychology doctoral candidates, saw their own studies in a new light. Mori has just completed a paper on best training practices for international students and hoped to find a way to connect her research to the U.N.’s broader goals.

Kaduvettoor assists Spokane as he examines the effects of disasters on mental health. “This adds another layer to my understanding of disaster research,” she says.

Lehigh offers several opportunities for all student to “add another layer” to their college experience by attending U.N. briefings throughout the year on various topics including human rights, terrorism and cyber-education.

“No one should graduate from Lehigh without having a U.N. experience,” says Bill Hunter, director of the Global Union. “The relationship we have at U.N. provides an opportunity for each member of the Lehigh community to benefit from this international experience.”

For more information on Lehigh trips to the United Nations, visit the LU-UN Web page.

--Becky Straw

Posted on Wednesday, October 17, 2007

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