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.
  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.


Web Links

NAMI on Campus Clubs. This article from the website of the National Alliance for Mental Illness encourages students to join or form their own student-led, student-run organization to provide mental health support, education, and advocacy in their university or college setting.

Virginia Teach One Year later: How Campuses Have Responded.  A  summary from Campus Safety Magazine.com of the results of the CS Post Virginia Tech Study showing how this tragedy has impacted the approaches campuses use to prevent, detect and respond to such emergencies.

Disaster Preparedness and Response for Schools and Universities. A list of useful disaster resources for educational institutions from the National Clearinghouse of Educational Facilities.

Coping with the War and Terrorism: Tips for College Students. This factsheet from Mental Health America covers common responses to crisis and tips for recognizing and coping with stress for students directly or indirectly affected by war and terrorism.

In the Wake of a Trauma: Tips for College Students. Factsheet  from SAMHSA on how to deal with school shootings.

Understanding Mental  Illness: - After the Virginia Tech Tragedy. From SAMHSA – a list of links to PDFs about recognizing and dealing with victims of trauma.

Tips for College Students: In the Wake of A Trauma. A factsheet from SAMHSA designed for the college student, explaining common responses to trauma and providing tips for coping.

Mental Health Response to Violence and Terrorism. (this covers UP TO age 18 and then older people)

Katrina Leaving Some Students Feeling Blue. This 2006 article from the Houston and Texas News website Chron.com  reviews the preliminary findings of a study by Thompson Davis III, an assistant professor of psychology at Louisiana State University and Amie Grills, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Houston, who based their findings on answers from about 1,000 students who completed an online survey. Thomas Ollendick, a Virginia Tech consultant, was also involved in the study.

College Campus Violence Prevention and Response. This 127-page 2008 report from Applied Risk Management includes a survey of the current state of campus violence preparedness and prevention in Massachusetts and makes recommendations for best practices.

Mental Health Role in Campus Security, by Lynn Carter. This article from the state of Missouri’s Office of Homeland Security Higher Education Committee reviews the recommendations of their Campus Security Task Force and their implications for the role of mental health professionals on campus and in the community.

Mental Health Planning for Higher Education. This ACI Train the Trainer course provides an overview of Missouri’s leadership efforts in campus security, reviews key concepts in disaster psychology and the and the contribution of mental health experts to emergency planning events, and identifies community resources available to support campuses in planning emergency responses that will address the mental health needs of students, faculty, administration and families.

Supporting Students: A Model for Colleges and Universities. This report from the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law provides useful information for college staff on depression and students and makes recommendations regarding crisis preparedness and resources.

Campus and Community Crisis. This report by Chris Flynn, Ph.D., Karen Settle, Ph.D., and Sherry Benton, Ph.D. looks at how several communities affected by trauma prepared for and/or dealt with disaster in order to define and address emergent issues in disaster mental health and formulate a disaster-planning model for campus-affiliated mental health professionals.

The Presidential Role in Disaster Planning and Response: Lessons From the Front. This 12-page 2008 report from the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) establishes guidelines, including guidelines for mental health assistance, for college presidents to follow before, during and after a disaster.

Campus Public Safety Preparedness for Catastrophic Events: Lessons Learned from Hurricanes and Explosives. This 2006 148-page report from the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators uses detailed case studies gathered from focus groups meetings of campus security professionals at colleges and universities that have experienced terrorism or disaster, to identify current and future training needs to help campus public safety departments prevent, protect against, respond to and recover from acts of terrorism or natural disasters on college campuses.

Stress Management Tips for Parents of College Students in the Aftermath of the Virginia Tech Incident. This article from the American Psychiatric Association Online contains many useful communication tips for parents of college students that have experienced stress or trauma.

Coping With Disaster: Tips for College Students. This 2-page factsheet from the Mental Health Association of Rockville, Maryland provides tips for recognizing commons responses to disaster, coping, and returning to normal life, and provides a list of online mental health resources.

Depression on College Campuses: The University’s Role in Responding to Crisis, Disaster and Loss. From the University of Michigan’s Depression Center website, this article provides a summary of their 2006 conference on disaster mental health. Includes links to video of several conference participants.