Current Issue

Graduate students receive disaster psychology training

During her summer internship, third-year psychology doctoral student Katie McChesney lived in a bullet-ridden apartment in a city clogged with cemeteries—reminders of the war that devastated Sarajevo a decade ago. The sights, the people and the stories of individuals who lived through the Bosnian siege in the 1990s are equipping McChesney to be a better psychologist.

McChesney, who worked with the United Nations Population Fund, was one of five doctoral students to intern with international NGOs in Sarajevo between June and August. The five-credit internships usher in a new field of study for DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP). In fall 2005, the school will launch its new master’s degree in international disaster psychology — believed to be the first of its kind in a professional school of psychology at any U.S. college or university.

“The psychological impact of events such as armed conflict, natural disasters and infectious disease epidemics can be passed on for generations, hindering societies from making large-scale progress,” says GSPP Dean Peter Buirski. “In many cases, local mental health workers have themselves suffered from these overwhelming events and, therefore, may be ill equipped to handle the associated mass psychological trauma. Right now, relief agencies go in with the best of intentions but do not have the time or the trained personnel equipped to respond to the mental health needs of the affected communities.”

The coursework is designed to teach students to train local relief workers. Currently, countries like Bosnia do not have formal education or training programs for clinical psychologists, doctors or other professionals.

The agencies DU worked with this summer are attempting to restore some of the lost structure and knowledge in an effort to create long-term change. Among other jobs, McChesney trained youth in communities around Bosnia on sexual and reproductive health. Those youth will stay in the country to run clinics in their communities. She also presented information to World Bank staff on training individuals in sexual and reproductive health.

Other students’ work included training orphanage workers on infant and child development, and assessing the trauma experienced by workers with the International Commission for Missing Persons, an organization responsible for overseeing the excavation of mass graves in Bosnia.

“Without our students, these agencies would not have had access to that level of skill when dealing with topics such as trauma,” says psychology Assist. Prof. Elaine Hanson, academic director of the International Center for Disaster Psychology. “The only truly effective intervention work will involve training people who live there and who will stay there and be committed to making advancements.”

The experience also showed students the conditions that exist elsewhere, an understanding that will help them adapt their skills as clinicians in new cultures where ethics, laws and cultural values may be different, says Hanson, who supervised the internships.

“You read about these atrocities, but you’re so far removed from it that it’s hard to understand,” McChesney says. “Going to another culture gives you another perspective. You hear exactly what you’ve read, but hearing those stories directly from people who lived through it makes it so much more profound.”

“I’m a firm believer that in order to really learn something, you have to be able to apply it,” Hanson says. “The experiences helped the students to see and understand international disaster psychology in a profound and poignant way and personally challenged them to become more insightful and sensitive to the needs of others — traits vital to the development of clinicians.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *