The University of Mississippi Clinical-Disaster Research Center (UM-CDRC) works to combine theory, practice, and research to give graduate students a well-rounded learning experience. We believe that the meaningful application of what one learns in a classroom is what makes for a well-rounded graduate experience. Such experiences are conducive to cultivating adept future clinicians and clinical researchers. Current projects within our center include looking at both positive variables, such as perceived meaning in life, and disaster mental health issues. In terms of positive variables, graduate students are examining concepts such as perceived meaning in life, social support, self-efficacy, and resilience and how they work as protective factors following major stressors across a variety of contexts. Students are currently examining how positive variables function as protective factors relating to natural or man-made disasters, suicidality, the workplace, and automatic stereotyping. In terms of disaster mental health, graduate students in the center are analyzing the level of disaster preparedness of students, faculty, and staff at our university towards natural and man-made disasters. The center aims to use what is learned to create an effective and efficient disaster preparedness training program that can be implemented at other universities in disaster-prone areas.
Graduate work began in the center following the initiation of the BP Behavioral Health Grant through the Mississippi Department of Mental Health. This grant provided funds to 19 mental health organizations along the coast in response to the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. These organizations offered a range of services, such as therapeutic interventions, mental health training programs, and community outreach efforts. Dr. Schulenberg was contacted by the Mississippi Department of Mental Health to evaluate the impact of the Gulf Oil Spill on the mental health of individuals receiving services from the agencies funded under the grant. Dr. Schulenberg formed a university-based team comprised of graduate students and faculty in order to carry out these efforts. Graduate students acted as liaisons for the individual sites, and their work involved meeting with sites on a quarterly basis to provide initial training, feedback, and continued training on data collection procedures. Other graduate students on the team were involved in data collection, informing site liaisons of issues that needed to be communicated as they were found, cleaning and organizing data, and consolidating data into reports that were presented to each individual site on a quarterly basis. In addition, graduate students participated in conference calls with the Mississippi Department of Mental Health on a frequent basis, gaining first-hand experience interacting with a large governmental organization. From this research, numerous posters and papers have been presented by graduate students at regional and national conferences. The papers that have been published or are in preparation for publication were prepared by both graduate students and faculty involved in this project, allowing graduate students the opportunity to experience the process of writing up the results of their research.
More recently, the focus of the UM-CDRC has shifted to increasing disaster preparedness in our community. Those who are more prepared for disasters experience better long-term outcomes to these extreme stressors, so our current research focus is learning individuals’ knowledge, perceptions, and attitudes toward disaster preparedness. We have learned from survey and focus group data that people are largely unprepared for disaster events. It is our aim to use the survey and focus group data to learn the best ways to educate members of the university and the larger community so that we can build resilience and develop a training curriculum with applicability to other universities. Graduate students helped prepare the initial survey and continue to play a major role in an ongoing revision process as we are informed by the data that are collected. In addition, graduate students have conducted focus groups, which included organizing and analyzing the information gathered, distributed preparedness materials such as posters and handouts across campus, and worked to spread this research to other areas in the community such as local high schools. We also plan to further study how positive variables such as perceived meaning in life and resilience help to protect individuals from the effects of a disaster, as well as serve to facilitate posttraumatic growth. Using what we learn to inform future trainings, we intend to help individuals in disaster-prone areas have better long-term outcomes.
Finally, the UM-CDRC values service, connecting its members to the community through disaster response and volunteer work. For example, the UM-CDRC offers trainings that prepare graduate students for future work as mental health responders during times of disaster. The UM-CDRC has offered trainings to graduate students and faculty in our department on topics such as psychological first aid and disaster mental health. Trainings are also offered in the larger community. Trained graduate students have the opportunity to become supervised disaster mental health responders in our region, traveling to sites where disasters or emergency situations have occurred and helping those in need. In terms of volunteer work, members of the UM-CDRC have also organized yearly Out of the Darkness Walks through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The walks raise funds for suicide prevention, intervention, research, and outreach efforts. Over the past four years, over $30,000 dollars have been raised for this cause, half of which remains local. Funds are used to meet a range of needs, such as helping support groups in the community and providing mental health centers with informational pamphlets and support materials.
The mission of the UM-CDRC is to integrate service, training, and research in disaster mental health. It is our hope that by providing graduate students with a range of didactic and hands-on experiences, we are preparing future clinicians and researchers to be able to better understand the experiences of those affected by disasters, and thus be better able to assist in recovery efforts.