Disaster Mental Health Institute assists communities

Disaster Mental Health Institute assists communities
Jerry Jacobs, Ph.D., is a professor in the clinical psychology training program and the director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute at USD.

Disaster Mental Health is an institute that trains people to respond to the mental health of communities that have gone through disasters.

Randy Quevillon, Ph.D and professor at USD, and Jacobs had a major role in the beginning of the Disaster Mental Health Institute.


In July of 1989, Flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, IA. They responded with the psychological support team and were asked to lead the provision of psychological support for survivors and family members of those on board. Quevillon and Jacobs proposed the development of the national plan for the Disaster Mental Health Institute, then had such interest in their work that there were many people asking to help. The Disaster Mental Health Institute started in 1993.

In 1997 it was named a state center of excellence. This expanded the institute greatly.

The team responds to everything from small local fires to the Asian tsunami. In the past they've also responded to events such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks and aviation disasters.

When asked what his most memorable experience in his work was, Jacobs replied, "When I was in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, I saw the train that was struck by the tsunami. It was an awesome realization to see the size of the train and realize it had been thrown 800 yards like a missile. Eight hundred people died on that train. It was a staggering reality."

Jacobs had some advice for high school students who have an interest in becoming a part of the disaster mental health team in the future. He said the key is to get experience in serving the community. One can volunteer locally while still in high school. Once in college, one can volunteer with the Red Cross. "We really need to get people involved before they become a psychologist," said Jacobs.

Jacobs wanted to make it clear that the undergraduate program at USD is in disaster response, not disaster psychology. The USD disaster mental health program is the first place in the United States to be given permission by the Red Cross to perform training at this academic level.

Jacobs added, "Students have the ability to have a unique experience to come to USD and study disaster response."

This story is published thanks to a joint agreement between the Plain Talk and the Vermillion High School journalism class.

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