Mental Health Institute staff provides support in Plankinton after fire

Mental Health Institute staff provides support in Plankinton after fire by David Lias It didn't take long for the Disaster Mental Health Institute at The University of South Dakota to slip into a very familiar role.

A Nov. 17 propane explosion and fire at the high school in Plankinton killed two people and left the building in ruins.

By last weekend, Professor Gil Reyes and five USD students had arrived in the community to offer assistance.

By Monday, three students returned to Vermillion, but Reyes and the remaining two students were still at work in Plankinton Monday afternoon.

"They all went up Saturday," said Dr. Gerard Jacobs, director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute. "They traveled up as American Red Cross volunteers. The community had requested some mental health support from the American Red Cross, and I was contacted early Saturday morning and asked if we could field a team to respond."

Jacobs said Monday that the the institute team was providing education, crisis intervention and referral services to the Plankinton community.

"They are trying to help them (Plankinton citizens) understand how people respond when they are faced with a traumatic event," Jacobs said. "One of the things that we

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try to make sure that people understand is that ordinary people who are experiencing extraordinary circumstances will sometimes experience things that are also extraordinary."

He noted that sometimes people find those emotions frightening.

"But generally, they are normal responses," Jacobs said, "so we help them understand that and also to understand the things they can do to assist in the recovery process and rebuild their coping skills in dealing with the situation."

Four men were in the Plankinton school building at the time of the propane explosion.

Pat Phillips, the school custodian, died at a Sioux Falls hospital, and John Harless, a volunteer firefighter, was in serious condition. School board President J.P. Sudeny Jr. was in another part of the building and was not harmed.

Dave Grode, CEO of Plankinton schools, was trapped by rubble after the explosion. Fire fighters were in voice contact with him Friday night. He later died, and his body was recovered Saturday morning.

Plankinton citizens are trying to come to grips with the loss of key members of the their community, and the virtual destruction of its public school.

"The crisis intervention is done with folks that are having a particularly difficult time," Jacobs said. "No matter how strong someone's coping skills may be, there are events that can overwhelm those coping skills.

"Sometimes folks just need a little support as they experience a reaction to a traumatic experience in their lives," he added. "Crisis intervention is a set of tools to help them get that support and begin the process of recovery."

People who may need longer-term support are referred to local mental health providers, such as Dakota Mental Health in Mitchell.

Jacobs said the USD's clinical education program focuses on producing broadly trained clinical psychologists who are ready to work in a rural community. Students are given a broad range of skills, and that is especially helpful following a disaster like the one experienced in Plankinton.

"There is a broad range of people there who have specific needs," he said, noting that everyone from kindergarten students to parents, teachers and firemen could be experiencing some degree of trauma.

Jacobs said Monday that members of the institute's team who remained in Plankinton Monday likely would return to Vermillion either Tuesday or Wednesday.

By that time, he said, the role of the American Red Cross in the town probably would wrap up. "The community has been very welcoming," Jacobs said.

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