International Disaster Psychology students put lessons into practice during overseas internships

Studying international disaster psychology in a University of Denver classroom is one thing, but as Erika Childs discovered last summer, putting those lessons into practice in the real world can be even more difficult than one might imagine.

Childs, a second-year student in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology’s Master’s Program in International Disaster Psychology (MAIDP), spent eight weeks in Ghana working with women and children in a refugee camp and assisting staff at two different psychiatric hospitals. All IDP students are required to travel abroad the summer between their first and second years.

“We spent the [first] year learning a lot of the theories, learning how different mental health systems work or are supposed to work in different countries,” says Childs, who traveled to Ghana with three other MAIDP students. “We took that baseline knowledge and got to apply it firsthand—take it beyond what the journal article might tell you. We got to see the human approach to it and feel the emotions and see the effects. It was really beneficial to be able to talk to the people and see what they were going through.”

Although Childs also works with refugees in Denver through the MAIDP program, she experienced some culture shock when confronted with Ghana’s primitive facilities and the country’s stigma surrounding mental health issues.

“Socially, it’s not recognized that it’s a mental health issue. You either have a physical problem or a spiritual problem,” she says. “So if you have a physical problem, you go to the doctor, and if you have a spiritual problem, you go to a pastor or a leader of what they call a prayer camp and are basically told to pray, and through that it will solve all your problems. We did a lot of awareness that it goes beyond spiritual; that there are other ways to address these problems.”

The eight-year-old MAIDP program “was created in response to the observation that there really were no training programs for international disaster psychology at a graduate level and a significant need for such programs,” says Director Judith Fox. “The program trains people to provide effective mental health and psychosocial services to individuals and communities who are affected by trauma and disaster domestically and internationally. Some of our graduates are interested in working domestically—Hurricane Katrina, the Aurora theater shooting—while others pursue careers internationally with organizations providing psychosocial services and humanitarian aid to those affected by trauma and disaster across the globe. Graduates work in many settings: providing direct service, evaluating psychosocial interventions, training and consulting with communities, and developing emergency preparedness and response plans.”

The summer internship program takes students to locations such as India, Nepal, Ghana, Liberia, Bosnia and Panama to work with individuals and communities affected by a wide variety of disasters, including civil conflict, natural disasters and health-related pandemics such as HIV and AIDS. The classwork in the students’ second year draws on their international experiences.

“All of the experiences and things that we learned and things we got to participate in will be incorporated into the different classes that we take throughout this year, as we compare and share our personal experiences,” Childs says. “We’ll be able to reflect on our experiences and see how that incorporates into the textbook knowledge that we’re getting in class.”

For Childs, those experiences have led to new career aspirations. Once a teacher in the Las Vegas, Nev., public school system, Childs now wants to work overseas after she finishes the MAIDP program, possibly training teachers and school administrators on how to address the needs of children and families dealing with trauma. It’s her way of continuing the work she started over the summer.

“Leaving was hard,” she says. “I’m still trying to adjust to being back in the United States. I just felt that there was still so much to do, and we just barely got our toes wet; barely got started understanding what was going on and some of the issues in the different places we were working. Right when we started to understand, it was time to go home.”




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