American Psychological Foundation

In the aftermath of such disasters as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Japanese tsunami and nuclear crisis, governments and aid agencies have recognized the pressing need to care for survivors. In addition to offering shelter, food and connections to aid, volunteers can be trained in "psychological first aid" in order to offer emotional support as part of their response activities and to make referrals to psychologists or other mental health professionals. Now, APF has given University of West Florida associate professor and clinical psychologist Robert Rotunda, PhD, a $10,000 grant to create a pilot training program for undergraduate and graduate students to do just that.

The yearlong program, which begins this fall, will offer a seminar on crisis intervention and disaster psychology to introduce students to the behavioral health care services offered by aid organizations such as the Red Cross. Students will also complete free online and in-class trainings from the Red Cross and the National Center for PTSD to supplement the core curriculum, which includes learning psychological first aid—an approach that focuses on empathetic listening, providing realistic assurances, encouraging coping and resiliency skills, and offering educational materials on how to manage emotional and behavioral responses to crises.

Students will also do two rounds of service learning. The first will train them to answer calls from a crisis phone line, where they will then work for at least 50 hours. The second will require them to complete Red Cross training and become volunteers to evaluate client needs, maintain records and help people contact their family and loved ones. They will then shadow a Red Cross Disaster Action Team on a number of occasions.

By the end of the program, students will have the skills to help local, regional or national aid organizations provide a range of services and psychological first aid in a post-disaster environment, Rotunda says. He hopes the program will grow into a concentration within his university's psychology department or a certificate program available to all university students.

To determine the programs' effectiveness, he will survey students before and after the course to determine whether the training influences students' interest and participation in volunteering with aid agencies.

"I hope the program will inspire students to go on to volunteer or join organizations that provide aid following disasters," he says.

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.