Schools - Colleges

Disasters and College and University Students

Because of their circumstances and their level of development, college students need some specific guidelines in responding to disasters.  Following are some suggestions modified from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to minimize possible mental and emotional effects of trauma caused by disasters.

Recommendations for Students:

  1. Realize that stress following a disaster is normal.  Common stress responses include disruptions of sleep, concentration, appetite, and mood (increased sadness and/or fearfulness).   These are cause for concern if problems are so severe that it becomes difficult to function. If sleep becomes impossible, if thinking is severely impaired (i.e. your thinking becomes disorganized or fragmented and people can’t understand what you are trying to say), if fear becomes crippling, if sadness is overwhelming or you have thoughts of dying or suicide you should get help immediately.
  2. Remember that grief is a process, and not an event.  Give yourself time to grieve and make meaning of the disaster and of your response to it, perhaps using spiritual resources as an aid.
  3. It is extremely important to try to get enough sleep and to maintain a proper diet as part of your self-care following the disaster.  If you are exhausted or not eating well you become more susceptible to stress, anxiety, and depression.
  4. Even though disasters always disrupt personal, educational, and financial normalcy, you should try to get back to a normal routine to the greatest extent possible. If you can, try to make arrangements to get back to school. If that is not possible, try to find some activities or involvements that will feel useful and productive.  But be realistic about what you can accomplish
  5. Find ways to give meaning to the situation and your life. People who volunteer and help others in the face of disasters are less prone to feelings of hopelessness and depression.
  6. Although it may seem appealing to use alcohol and other drugs to ease the difficult feelings resulting from disasters, these substances will give you some short term relief at the cost of longer term pain and distress. They will, over time, lead to increased feeling of depression and more difficulty functioning. Drug abuse can be a disaster in itself, the current opioid crisis in the state of Georgia as well as the rest of the country speaks to this.
  7. For many people, symptoms will ease with the passage of time: the effects of trauma do not have to last a lifetime.  But if things appear to be worsening, counseling and possibly some short term medication may be enough to get back on track. If you feel vulnerable or frightened, let someone know. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Recommendations for Colleges:

  1. Recognize that while it is of utmost importance to be vigilant and active in providing support, most students are quite resilient in the face of post-disaster stress. It is reassuring for your students to know that help is there, even if they choose not to use it. But, it will also help to remind students that people have dealt with adversity in the past and most will eventually do fine.
  2. Mandatory and emergency crisis counseling and debriefing programs, while well-intentioned, have not been shown to be of help. There are indeed suggestions that these programs may be detrimental to the recovery of some people attending them. Avoid mandatory counseling in crisis situations. Young people, in general, prefer to talk about troubling events among themselves.
  3. Make sure that “first line” staff (such as RA’s and student affairs personnel) are aware of the possibility of stress responses among directly affected and otherwise vulnerable students. Check in with students from the Gulf area to find out whether and how they have been personally impacted.
  4. Make sure that adequate counseling services are available for affected and vulnerable students. If necessary, look for ways to partner with off campus mental health resources.
  5. It is important that students have access to good communication systems. Facilitating students' ability to contact affected families and friends is encouraged.
  6. Be flexible. Recognize that some students may not be able to work at their typical academic level during times of disaster. Think about pass/fail options and flexible leave of absence policies.
  7. Recognize that this crisis will continue to have an impact on some members of your student body for weeks and months. Continue to monitor for delayed and worsening stress reactions. If you are concerned about a student, find a clinician at your counseling center, student health service center, or in your community with whom to consult.