Academics and Research

Disaster psychology students put what they learn into practice

On her birthday, Linda Baker arrived in Belize City, Belize — not to celebrate but to volunteer for the Pan American Health Organization. It was a part of her summer internship for the International Disaster Psychology program at DU.

The circumstances were difficult; two weeks prior to her arrival, Tropical Storm Arthur had flooded much of the country’s eastern coast.

“There were seven fatalities and numerous injuries as a result of the floods,” says Baker, a second-year graduate student. “It was definitely a tough situation to handle, but we were so busy we had little time to stop and reflect.”

Baker and fellow student Alyson Welch worked with the World Health Organization under Dr. Claudina Cayetano, one of two psychiatrists in the country. They helped train psychiatric nurse practitioners about how patients would normally react in a disaster and are helping develop a national mental health disaster plan.

“I think our training in disaster psychology definitely helped prepare me for our experience in Belize,” says Welch, a second-year graduate student. “It was rewarding to see concepts and ideas that we have discussed in class played out in the field.”

However, Welch admits, when they met families who survived the flooding, it was tough. One father had clung to his son and daughter as they hung in a tree until help came. Another father tried to save his infant son, but the currents of the flood carried the baby away.

“Seeing the effects of the disaster first hand, as well as talking with survivors, was an incredibly moving experience and one that could only occur in the field,” Welch says.

The overseas internships offer students valuable learning experiences, says Judy Fox, the director of the International Disaster Psychology program at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

“Students develop the skills they need to work in organizations addressing the psychosocial needs of communities affected by disaster,” Fox says. “They grow professionally and personally from grappling with the challenges of working abroad, practicing skills important to their future career goals.”

Fox and her colleagues develop partnerships with governmental and non-governmental agencies, who work with communities affected by disaster to develop the internship possibilities for students.

Currently, International Disaster Psychology students have opportunities to work with the Pan American Health Organization, a division of the World Health Organization, in Belize and Jamaica or with a variety of non-governmental agencies in Bosnia.

Comments are closed.