Mental health isn't always the first thing that comes to mind when a disaster strikes. But a special program at the University of South Dakota is trying to change that.
The Disaster Mental Health Institute at USD is the only program in the U.S. that offers a doctorate in that field.
In tonight's Eye on KELOLAND, we take a look at how students are learning to look beyond just the physical needs of people in the midst of a disaster.
Dr. Jerry Jacobs started the Disaster Mental Health Institute with a few colleagues at USD back in 1997. Since then their mission has been to help people in times of crisis with their mental well-being.
"The way that a person experiences the traumatic stress of a situation can strongly affect their ability to recover. And so if we can help people process their psychological responses effectively. It helps the community recover not only psychologically but in all the physical and community aspects as well," Jacobs said.
In situations like the recent Colorado flooding, Jacobs says the first thing a disaster mental health expert would do is address the victims.
But they would also be seeking out the volunteers, like those with the Red Cross.
"It's often a very stressful time when disaster relief workers come into an operation. They want to be helping the people as quickly as possible, but there's bureaucracy that has to come first. So that's often a very stressful thing for people to go through," Jacobs said.
The DMHI doctorate program can only take about 10 to 15 students a year. But the graduates leaving USD are still landing top jobs in their field, all over the world.
"Most of our folks I would say are working in some kind of a hospital setting, trying to help the hospitals develop disaster mental health programs," said Jacobs.
Some students like Kayla Zeal hope to specialize in working with military hospitals.
"In the Disaster Mental Health Institute we focus a lot on traumatic stress and post traumatic stress disorder. And unfortunately those are some things that affect a lot of veterans that are coming back. So I think there's a great need to help that population right now," said Zeal.
Another student hoping to work with public servants is Matthew Moffitt. He wants to work with police, to examine how they cope with their experiences on the job. He says breaking stereotypes about mental health issues is what drew him to this course.
"The fact that people tend to not focus on it as much, makes it an area that needs to be improved and talked about. People need to kind of let go of the stigma of it, and people need help," third year graduate student, Matthew Moffitt said.
That stigma is one of the reasons Jacobs and his colleagues started the institute. And the program has become world renowned.
However, after the 2008 recession hit, Jacobs says programs that weren't bringing in any money were the first to be cut.
"With the financial cutbacks, we lost two of our faculty positions. So we lost two full-time faculty, and that's a big chunk out of our work," Jacobs said.
Now, students are responsible for things like finding and funding their own externships. Hitomi Uchishiba is from Japan and decided to go back home for her dissertation.
"As you might remember, there was a huge earthquake, and tsunami, and nuclear crisis two years ago. And still affecting the people, so I wanted to see how psychological support is working in that community. And how that might help the people," Uchishiba said.
While Zeal, Moffitt and Uchishiba all have different plans for their lives after school, Jacobs hopes they remember the foundation of their training.
"One of the comments I heard the other day is that, somebody on the national level was talking about the importance of not just looking at what you can do to make how much money when you graduate. But that it's important to learn how to serve your community," Jacobs said.
Jacobs and some of the students hope to work with the Red Cross in Sioux Falls in the coming months, to teach courses to the public on psychological first aid.