Academics and Research

International Disaster Psychology students help Colorado heal after flooding

The image of flood waters washing away highways, homes and businesses this fall is seared into the memories of many in Colorado. The state has suffered its share of disasters over the last couple of years – fires and floods chief among them.

Yet renewal blooms. Within weeks of the fall 2013 floods across northern Colorado, local TV reporters were airing promises and pictures of a renewed future – new roads, restored homes and rebuilt businesses dotting healed landscapes.

But there’s another kind of healing, one more difficult for a TV camera to capture: the healing of humans. There were torrents of tears. Those floods and flames singed and sunk human hearts and minds. Reconstructing those takes a special skill – a skill the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology teaches in its International Disaster Psychology (IDP) program.

The degree is designed for those who wish to provide effective mental health and psychosocial services to individuals and communities in the U.S. and globally who are affected by traumatic events, acute and chronic civil conflict, natural disasters and health-related pandemics. Students are required to spend a summer abroad putting their training to practical use.

Many students and alumni in the program worked with flood victims during the recovery, and they stand at the ready for the next misfortune.

One recent IDP graduate, Aimee Voth Siebert (MA ’12), saw the human devastation first hand in her job as a disaster behavioral health specialist for Colorado’s Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response. During disasters she connects victims with sources of food, clothing and shelter. In the fall flooding, she staffed the state emergency operations center to get behavioral health resources to victims.

Between emergencies, Siebert trains disaster responders and works with her team to improve response methods and services.

Curt Drennen (PsyD ’01), who manages disaster behavioral health and community resiliency for the state, says DU grads come to the job well prepared. “What stands out to me is their well-roundedness,” Drennen says. “I think between their field placements and international summer internships, they come with a good understanding of how to work effectively in systems and bureaucracies.”

Jackie Erwin, a second-year IDP student from Lakewood, Colo., and a crisis counselor for a flood response team at the Aurora Mental Health Center, volunteered and delivered psychological first aid to flood victims this fall in Boulder, Colo.

“I feel IDP has prepared me to face disaster work with confidence,” Erwin says. “The program is extremely focused on cultural diversity, and that will help students in many different aspects of their career.”

Siebert agrees and says courses like International Public Health, Disaster Mental Health and Group Interventions prepared her to communicate with a wide swath of professionals, including traditional mental health therapists, public health workers and emergency responders.

“The emphasis on cross-cultural competence in my classes helped me be mindful of people’s identities and worldviews,” Siebert says.

It’s all by design, says Judith Fox, associate professor and IDP director.

“Our students learn to apply culturally informed interventions as they measure the psychosocial and psychological needs of communities and individuals after disaster and trauma,” she says.

Fox says 12 IDP alumni and students helped during the fall floods — seven alumni in paid positions and five student interns. “And several students volunteered at the disaster assistance centers in Boulder and Longmont,” Fox says.

Though she graduated from the IDP program a year ago, Siebert says working in the field still brings lessons. “What I take away from tragedies is the abiding and humbling lesson of just how resilient we all are,” she says. “Disasters hurt. There’s no denying it, but they also give us pause to consider what is most meaningful in our lives, and they bring out the best in so many.”

She uses the recent Colorado wildfires as an example. The blazes misplaced nearly 25,000 people, but only 1,000 used emergency shelters.

“They had families and friends who took them in,” Siebert says. “The social fabric is so deeply woven that even when some individual threads are fraying, the rest of the weave will hold us up.”



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