USD's Elliot responds to disasters; Professor helps victims deal with 'truth of what happened' On short notice from the American Red Cross, University of South Dakota Professor Dr. Teri L. Elliott, of the Disaster Mental Health Institute (DMHI), was flown to Columbus, MS., Feb. 23 after the town was hit with high winds, possibly a tornado, resulting in one death.
While in Columbus, another deadly storm hit a few miles away the following day in Pontotoc, MS, where seven deaths were reported, four connected to the same family.
The American Red Cross responds to these types of disasters to handle the emergency services, such as immediate needs like food, shelter and clothing. They have a small roster of mental health people they can call on.
"It takes more education in order to do the mental health aspect," said Elliot. "When dealing with mental health issues in disasters, we're better able to make sure that somebody does not become a disaster 'victim' but rather someone who has just gone through a disaster 'experience.' We help them deal with the truth of what really happened. It's not a job for everyone. It tends to be physically and emotionally demanding, doesn't pay very well, but yet is very rewarding."
Part of the job is going out to look for people who need help, who are unaware that help is available. Elliot shared a story about finding an 85-year-old woman in her home that was about ready to collapse. She was injured but refused to leave to get help. She had probably lived there her entire life, and Elliot said she wouldn't be surprised if the woman would have stayed until the home had fallen in on her.
Elliot returned from the two disaster intervention on March 5.
One thing unique about Elliot is that she specializes in child psychology. She went into schools and did debriefings and support consultations, educating children, teachers, and school counselors about what they were dealing with and how best to begin healing.
Elliot finds more often than not that people are very resilient when going through a disaster. It's harder to tell with children if they have been traumatized and if that will stay with them.
Other responsibilities have taken her into school systems to teach suicide prevention or disaster preparedness or to instruct school counselors on psychological support after traumatic events. She is conducting research on a variety of topics including the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa; the Northern Ireland conflict; bullying and the strengths of children who don't bully; and why helpers enter the field of trauma.
Her recently published booklet titled Handling the Aftermath of Armed Conflict and Displacement has been translated into Albanian and Serbian.
Elliot screened and provided mental health services to victims of the 1999 North Carolina floods.
"Floods are harder," said Elliot. "They smell bad and are quite toxic."
In 2000, at the request of the Gambian Red Cross, she flew to Gambia on a few hours notice to do crisis intervention when a Red Cross volunteer and a number of high school students were shot in a civil uprising. She is presently helping the Gambian Red Cross develop programs to teach the nation's natural healers and others about psychological support after traumatic events, under the institute's agreement with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
When Elliot first started looking into this field, she concentrated on war zones, and no such positions existed. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology and began working with computers. The job was financially rewarding but wasn't emotionally gratifying, so Elliot went back to school.
"Doing this kind of work, you can reach a large amount of people, and the impact is so much greater," she said. "The context of what is lost to disaster victims is so important. Most lose their communities, local pharmacies, neighborhoods, etc. Children lose that sense of security; the world is not a 'safe' place anymore. Simple objects can trigger a memory of the traumatic experience, and the child will relive the entire horrific experience over again. This is true of adults as well."
As a mental health psychologist, she wants to prepare them by letting them know the emotional phases of recovery they are likely to experience.
The first stage is the "heroic phase" that is prior to or immediately after. The victim may experience shock, fear confusion, adrenaline rush, etc.
The second stage is referred to as the "honeymoon phase" that is one week to two to six months after. The victim attends to basic needs in a chaotic environment, concerns about safety, food for the day, a place to sleep that night, often experience unrealistic expectations about recovery, willingness to help others, denial of extent of needs or emotional impact, etc.
The third phase is referred to as the "disillusionment phase" that is two months to one to two years after. The victim begins to realize the extent of losses and the work to be done, experiences grieving, community politics begin to emerge, psychosomatic complaints increase, illness, abuse and crime increases, etc.
And finally the fourth phase, the "reconstruction phase" that may last for several years is experienced. The victim can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, begin to put the disaster behind them, experience a renewed feeling of empowerment, return to pre-disaster activities, and return to pre-disaster problems.
If people are unaware that the disillusionment phase is a natural part of the recovery process, they may be very hard on themselves. They may wonder why they were doing so well and now are struggling again. Sometimes education about our natural healing processes can be the best assistance.
"Most people are amazingly resilient," said Elliot. "But it's important to know that the next birthday or holiday can trigger all the emotional pain of their loss. Along the positive side, people grow from these experiences and many times a crisis can be a pivotal point in their life and they are better for it."
Elliot, who began at USD in 1998, was the first full-time faculty member hired in the psychology department at the Disaster Mental Health Institute. She is much like a regular professor; she comes in, teaches her classes, supervises, and does research. But with a phone call, she can be heading across the country or around the world.
Elliot was featured in the February 2001 issue of the Monitor on Psychology, a national publication of the American Psychological Association, as one of the recent graduates who have chosen off-the-beaten-path careers in psychology.
Elliot has a BA in psychology from the University of California, San Diego, and an MA and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Long Island University, New York. She attended the University of Pennsylvania, Solomon Asch Center for the study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in June 1999 through August 2000. She has had additional training from the American Red Cross in Family Services; Adult, Infant and Child CPR; Community First Aid and Safety; Advanced Disaster Mental Health Services; and Introduction to Disaster.
Elliot is a licensed psychologist in New York State and a member of the following organizations: American Psychological Associations, World Federation for Mental Health, International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, Psychologists for Social Responsibility and others.