Helping universities prepare for tragic events

Psychologists, whether associated with a university or not, can help minimize the impact of disasters

By Public Relations staff

Sept. 13, 2012—With the start of the academic year, now is a good time to consider ways psychologists can help universities prepare for and manage possible tragic situations. The past five years alone have seen fatal campus shootings at more than 15 universities across the United States. In the aftermath, psychologists can be called upon suddenly to provide guidance to university leadership and support to students, faculty and staff. Advanced preparation is the best strategy; it can empower universities to quickly bring the situation under control and help those who have been impacted.

Psychologists on or near university or college campuses, whether associated with the university or not, can be helpful in protecting the community and minimizing the impact of emergencies and crises.


For all licensed psychologists

Become a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer. Their training will enable you to offer survivors help through the immediate crisis, build resiliency and screen and refer those who may need additional support. Red Cross has the authority, infrastructure and experience to incorporate the volunteer contributions of licensed mental health professionals. The National Organization for Victim Assistance also trains mental health professionals and has a team of volunteers who support crime victims. Some states have additional programs as well.

Psychologists can join the APA Disaster Response Network (DRN), a group of licensed psychologists who offer volunteer assistance to survivors and relief workers in the aftermath of disaster, primarily through the American Red Cross. DRN members also share knowledge and resources and work together to support disaster response organizations with planning, response and recovery activities.

For university psychologists

Find out about the university’s emergency response plan. Is there a role identified for faculty, counseling center staff or your office? Is it clear to you what the university’s steps are in an emergency? If there is a way to get involved and you are interested, volunteer to help. Psychologists can ensure mental health is considered in the response plan and promote resilience and other effective coping techniques. You can also help educate others about the emergency response plan.

If tasked with writing or updating the response plan, check to see what other universities are doing. Several universities have models that could be helpful in developing a comprehensive emergency response plan. The Federal Communications Commission maintains a publicly-available list of emergency communications plans from universities and colleges of various sizes, and the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities provides a collection of resources for developing emergency preparedness plans.

In developing an emergency plan, consider partnering or coordinating with disaster response agencies such as local Red Cross chapters or government entities such as Community Emergency Response Teams. Major disasters can easily overwhelm available on-campus resources and partnering with these organizations can provide needed and useful support.


Disaster research shows that most people who survive traumatic events are able to bounce back from the tragedy after some weeks and go on with their lives. A small portion of people who have been exposed to certain risk factors (such as witnessing death or fearing for their own lives) are at greater risk for longer-term complications. Disaster mental health professionals can be particularly helpful to individuals who are at greater risk by encouraging them to take positive steps to effectively manage their circumstances early in the recovery process.

Disaster survivors, their family and friends, and disaster responders can strengthen their coping abilities following disaster by engaging in certain behaviors. These can include ensuring personal safety, promoting resilience (see APA’s Building Your Resilience (PDF, 204KB) or sign up for a Psychological First Aid course at a local Red Cross chapter) and utilizing available resources such as tip sheets from APA’s Psychology Help Center, university counseling services, disaster distress hotlines and faith-based community support.


Psychologists can share information about available support services and resource information for students and those who work on campus. There may be support groups or volunteer activities that bring people together and promote a positive focus. Help to organize some sort of public remembrance – vigil, commemorative tree planting, special remembrance day - to recognize and honor those affected by the tragedy. It is important for community representatives – students, faculty and staff – to choose and plan the remembrance activities in order to gain a sense of control and ownership over events in their lives which can begin to facilitate recovery.

Additional resources
Special thanks to Doug Hindman, PhD, Kentucky Psychological Association DRN coordinator, who assisted on this article.