USD Disaster Mental Health Institute co-authors tool for worldwide refugee crises A team of experts at The University of South Dakota has been tapped by the World Health Organization to write uniform standards for helping refugees.
Members of the university's Disaster Mental Health Institute spent the past 10 months creating what's known as the Rapid Assessment Tool, a uniform strategy for assessing the needs of refugees worldwide, regardless of their culture or language.
During an Oct. 23 gathering of world leaders in Geneva, Switzerland, WHO officials endorsed the institute's work. In the coming months it will become international practice.
"It's pretty amazing to get this kind of respect throughout the world," said Gerard Jacobs, director of the USD institute.
Jacobs and fellow faculty of the USD Disaster Mental Health Institute have gained national prominence since their work with the families and survivors of United Airlines Flight 232, which crashed in Sioux City, IA in 1989. The institute caught the WHO's attention with its work at major disaster sites including Hurricane Andrew, the Oklahoma City bombing and the war-torn streets of Northern Ireland. And on Oct. 31, USD faculty member Randal Quevillon flew to California to help counsel relatives of the more than 40 U.S. citizens who were killed when a Singapore Airlines jet crashed in Taiwan.
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Until now there has never been a systematic way to meet the mental health needs of refugees in life-altering situations.
In January 1999, WHO approached the Disaster Mental Health Institute at USD and asked them to join WHO and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in developing a Rapid Assessment of Mental Health Needs (RAMH) of refugees. The RAMH is designed to measure the mental health needs of refugees in any culture or language in any part of the world.
WHO singled out the DMHI for its academic strength and concrete experience in crisis management, and for the cross-cultural and community emphases of the USD doctoral Clinical Psychology Training Program.
The team from the DMHI included four faculty, Drs. Jacobs, Quevillon, Teri Elliott and Gilbert Reyes, and five doctoral fellows, Jorge Boero, Melissa Hiller, Erika Johnson-Jimenex, Kelley Le Beaux, and Shannon McCaslin. They spent eight months creating a uniform strategy for assessing the needs of refugees, regardless of culture or language, to be used in the wake of conflict, and for the past 12 months have worked on integrating comments from expert reviewers from around the world.
The tool is a compact 20-page instruction book for emergency field workers intended to help them understand what information is necessary to evaluate the trauma that refugees have experienced, and to assess the role that culture and religious beliefs play when determining the nature and gravity of refugees' mental-health problems. It also identifies sources of such information.
The decisions of governments or leaders can mean recovery or re-traumatization for millions of people in camps, shelters and centers worldwide. The tool addresses the mental health needs of large refugee populations for whom ad hoc arrangements and improvisations in response to each emergency are not effective. It builds on specific management ability, strong field experience and evidence based approaches.
"The next step in our work with WHO is the development of a much more detailed and comprehensive mental health assessment tool, and we are working on that now," said Jacobs. "In approximately two years the RAMH will be reviewed by experts who have used it throughout the world � it needs to work everywhere if it's going to work properly."
In addition, survivors of conflicts carry the burden of terror of rape and sexual abuse and often of having lost close relatives and friends � sometimes even having watched their execution. These are not isolated cases; tens of thousands � and in instances such as in Rwanda, millions of cases � may occur in a single conflict. Add to this the severe limitations of extreme poverty in many parts of the world, and the fact that more than half of the 50 million refugees and displaced people in today's world do not receive basic assistance or protection, and the mental health impact of conflict can be more easily understood.
The DMHI is one of six South Dakota Board of Regents Centers of Excellence, two of which are located at USD.
"We're the only organization in the world with a Statement of Understanding to directly work with the IRFC," Jacobs said. The DMHI is also the only graduate mental health program in the country whose students are permitted by the American Red Cross to routinely respond under supervision as Disaster Mental Health Services volunteers.
USD is the only university that offers an under-graduate minor in disaster response and a doctoral specialty track in clinical/disaster psychology.
Disaster mental health professionals provide mental health assistance to survivors, their families, emergency workers and others in the aftermath of disasters and traumatic events.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.