EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation — June 25, 2008

Church Disaster Mental Health Project
Outreach and Education for Pastors and Church Leaders

Jamie D. Aten, Ph.D.
Director, Church Disaster Mental Health Project
Assistant Director of Health and Mental Health, Katrina Research Center
Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology
University of Southern Mississippi

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A text transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org.

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: Good morning/afternoon everyone. On behalf of Avagene and myself, welcome to the Virtual Forum! We are pleased you could join us today, including our first-timers. We want you to feel comfortable about participating, and we will be giving instructions as we go along.

Our topic today is the "Church Disaster Mental Health Project: Outreach and Education for Pastors and Church Leaders." There have been numerous articles in the media about the unmet mental health needs on the Gulf Coast, and we wanted to focus on this innovative approach.

Please note, there a related poll/survey question on our home page, "Who is responsible for Mental Health Services in your plan?" Please take a moment after our session to respond.

Now to introduce our guest. Dr. Jamie D. Aten is an Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM). He is also the Assistant Director of Health and Mental Health for the Katrina Research Center at USM, and Director of the Church Disaster Mental Health Project.

He is the co-editor of three forthcoming books, and his current research focuses on African-American faith communities affected by Hurricane Katrina, which is being supported by grants from the Mississippi Minority Institute for Improvement of Geographic Health, Pew Charitable Trusts and Rand Gulf States Policy Institute, Red Cross and Foundation for the Mid-South, and United Jewish Communities.

Please see the Background Page for further biographical details, and you may want to check out the podcast interview with Jamie for additional brief remarks, which is linked from both the Background Page and home page.

Welcome Jamie, and thank you for being with us today. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off please.


Jamie Aten: Thank you Amy, I am very excited to have the opportunity to share about the Church Disaster Mental Health Project (CDMHP).

The purpose of the Church Disaster Mental Health Project (CDMHP) is to provide active outreach and education to pastors and church leaders. Specific aims of this project are to help pastors and church leaders, through online training modules, online resources, and in-person trainings, to:

  1. Identify signs and symptoms of psychological distress following disasters;
  2. Provide individual and community-based disaster care and support;
  3. Improve access to post-disaster mental health services; and
  4. Facilitate healthy self-care practices after disasters.

The CDMHP is supported by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts in collaboration with the Rand Gulf States Policy Institute. The CDMHP began in August, 2007 to address the overwhelming mental health needs faced by faith communities following Hurricane Katrina in the Mississippi Gulf Region, with an emphasis on reaching leaders in African American churches.

This project evolved directly from research conducted by my colleague Dr. Sharon Topping (University of Southern Mississippi) and myself, which was funded by the University of Mississippi Medical College's Institute for Improvement of Geographic Minority Health, which is supported by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.

Overall, we found that participants reported a need, and desire, for education and training targeting disaster mental health related issues. For example, African American pastors reported wanting more information that would assist them in identifying mental health problems following a disaster (e.g., recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms).

Training on self-care practices was also requested by participants, as many reported either personally experiencing or observing signs of burnout among local clergy providing assistance after Hurricane Katrina. They also stated that they needed more information about local and national disaster mental health organizations and resources.

Similarly, African American pastors described the need for basic helping skills and crisis counseling skills training. Additional training on post-disaster referral skills and procedures was also frequently highlighted. Lastly, they reported wanting to receive training on developing church disaster preparedness and response plans. Further, they requested both in-person and online resources.

Participants reported being open to trainings that had the potential to not only bring together local pastors, but also pastors and mental health professionals around disaster mental health issues. The participants also stated they would be interested in having mental health professionals collaborate with them to provide training seminars in their churches for congregation members.

More resources, in print (such as pamphlets) and online (websites), were also thought to be needed to enhance awareness about disaster mental health issues. Participants reported that these resources would be helpful in improving their own personal understanding and knowledge of disaster mental health issues. Likewise, participants hoped that they would be able to use these resources with their church leadership, congregation members, and ultimately, communities.

The Church Disaster Mental Health Project (CDMHP) was developed approximately a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina, and was structured around the aforementioned research findings. This project built on existing relationships with over 40 churches and African American pastors who had assisted with various Hurricane Katrina related studies conducted by myself and Dr. Sharon Topping.

The CDMHP has sought to actively engage African American pastors in each stage of the project's development. For example, we have shared our research findings and outlined the need for a training project at several meetings. The initial advisory board for the CDMHP grew out of these experiences, and they have been integral in expanding the CDMHP (e.g., by helping to identify community needs and training solutions).

Advisory board members have also been integral in generating research ideas (e.g., by identifying long-term disaster mental health responses among African American church attendees), in hopes of generating research that may lead to more targeted interventions.

Furthermore, in-person disaster mental health trainings and online training modules have been developed to help pastors, church leaders, and congregation members:

  1. identify signs and symptoms of psychological distress,
  2. provide individual and community-based psychological support,
  3. practice self-care strategies, and
  4. access available mental health resources (including local and national agencies and programs).

For example, the CDMHP has conducted several in-person, day-long and multiple-day disaster mental health trainings (e.g., disaster pastoral care skills conference) by joining with other community and state-based faith and mental health groups. The CDMHP collaborated with the Mississippi Departments of Mental Health and Health to include clergy and religious leaders in a state-wide first-responder three day conference.

Similarly, the CDMHP collaborated with the Mississippi Interfaith Disaster Task Force to host a large two day mental health summit on the coast that provided disaster mental health training tracks designed specifically for clergy and mental health professionals. Moreover, overlapping training sessions were provided which were designed to help facilitate clergy-mental health professional disaster collaboration. Round table discussions and breakout sessions were also incorporated to provide networking opportunities for clergy and mental health professionals.

The CDMHP is also working with an entire coastal city clergy association to help develop a shared disaster preparedness and response plan. The CDMHP also developed and launched a website (http://www.churchdisasterhelp.org) aimed at preparing religious leaders and faith communities for disasters. The website includes a number of disaster mental health resources, including approximately 60 online power point trainings, with topics ranging from the role of the African American church following Hurricane Katrina to disaster spiritual care.

Approximately 40 full-length disaster manuals on disaster issues such as organizing disaster volunteers and developing church disaster preparedness plans are also posted. Nearly 70 brief quick reference fact sheets have been collected that deal with a wide range of disaster related issues, like recognizing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Disaster related professional links are also provided, including links to local mental health professionals and agencies, disaster research centers, disaster relief agencies and organizations, faith-based disaster relief agencies, and state and national professional mental health associations.

Recommend books and readings on disaster and spiritual issues with descriptions are also posted, which pastors and religious leaders may find helpful. There is also a news section that highlights upcoming training events by the CDMHP and other local and national training opportunities for faith leaders.

A blog and newsletter is also posted that allows the CDMHP and users of the website, to highlight relevant disaster mental health information and share their experiences and lessons learned with one another.

My colleague Dr. Sharon Topping and I have also received additional funding that will allow the CDMHP to continue to expand. For example, in collaboration with the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Task Force, we will be working to develop The Disaster Clergy Responder Network (funded by the United Jewish Communities). The purpose of this project is to prepare clergy from all faith backgrounds to prepare and respond to disasters through the development of a disaster clergy credential, disaster clergy response network, and disaster clergy retreat.

This project represents a joint effort between IDTF and USM under the guidance of an advisory board. In-person disaster training modules will be offered throughout each project year on:

  1. basics of NIMS system,
  2. disaster ministry, and
  3. emotional and spiritual care in disasters,

which upon completion, will lead to a credential as certified a Disaster Clergy Responder.

Regional coordinators will then be selected from certified Disaster Clergy Responders to collaborate with the project co-directors to facilitate the organized response of other certified Disaster Clergy Responders in their assigned regions in the event of a serious emergency, thus forming the Disaster Clergy Responder Network.

Additional training opportunities will be offered annually through the Mental Health Summit, a two-day conference put on by the IDTF focused on mental health and pastoral care topics. Moreover, an annual Disaster Clergy Responder Retreat will be sponsored that will focus on self-care and resiliency issues.

We are also consulting with the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Task Force to develop the Pastoral Care and Mental Health Partnership: A Katrina Resiliency Project (funded by the Foundation for the MidSouth and Red Cross Community Resilience Fund). The goal of this initiative is to better address the mental health needs of Mississippi Coast residents by building partnerships between religious leaders and mental health professionals. This project will seek to work with a broad range of religious leaders, including clergy from Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Buddhist faiths as well as lay leaders.

Similarly, mental health professionals may include clinicians, caseworkers, social workers, school counselors and other allied professionals. Participants in this project will have access to:

  1. appropriate, accessible disaster mental health training;
  2. networks of religious leaders and mental health providers that can help provide assessment, referral, and clinical services for their community members; and
  3. emotional support/resiliency programs for themselves and their congregations.

An emphasis will also be placed on reaching pastors and church leaders from African American churches to facilitate the delivery of mental health services and to improve access to mental health services in minority communities.

These are just a couple examples of our current projects. For more information feel free to visit my homepage http://www.atenjamie.weebly.com to learn more about our other projects and recent findings on spirituality and Hurricane Katrina.

Thank you again for the opportunity to discuss our project. My hope is that the lessons we have learned from Hurricane Katrina and the CDMHP will be used to assist others affected by disasters. I will be happy to respond to your comments and questions, and I now turn the floor back over to our Moderator.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Jamie. Now, to proceed to your questions or comments.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Isabel McCurdy: Jamie, I find this topic timely. My church is closing June 30 after 100 years of service. Churches all over the world are closing due to lack of membership. Normally a membership in good standing with your church can access resources the church offers. Has there been an increase in church membership due to Katrina?

Jamie Aten: That is a great question. We actually saw two different changes occur. There are a number of churches that just could not survive members leaving the area, people relocating, etc. However, at the same time, there was a sense of renewal in church attendance by many in the area. But as you noted, those with fewer resources had a more difficult time in the recovery process, especially if they were not connected with either other local churches or national faith organizations.

John Birch: Suggest we tap into American Red Cross DMH already trained volunteers?

Jamie Aten: Yes, I think that could be a good way of going about this. Overall, I think it is important that we start looking for ways to collaborate. There are a number of great resources out there, but often we end up duplicating our efforts. So having a forum like today I think is one the ways we can go about forming and enhancing our efforts. I also think that there are opportunities for us to not only equip clergy, faith communities at large for how to respond to disasters. If we can strengthen faith communities and make them more resilient and provide training to faith communities responding to disasters, I think we can make a huge impact on community level responses to disasters.

Barbara Fay: Is there a relationship between this project and the grant funded "psychological first aid" program being provided to churches through health departments in Maryland? It is led by Johns Hopkins U.

Jamie Aten: Barbara, currently there is not a relationship between our program and the great work being done in Maryland. However, my colleagues and I just recently came across their work, and would greatly enjoy learning more about their work.

Ray Pena: What I like about this - it shows that every segment of a community participates in, and can have a very positive effect on, community emergency management activities. How well is this work being integrated into local or state emergency management activities?

Jamie Aten: You are right. For this work to be effective the services need to be integrated with the right agencies. So, one of our goals is to invite such groups to be on our future advisory boards.

Danney Stanley: One of the things I have noticed working with Victim Relief as a Chaplain/Counselor is that Pastors of small churches just become so consumed with helping membership needs, church, etc. that they become burned out, to their own family needs, needing someone to debrief etc. with.

Jamie Aten: We have also seen that following Katrina, which is why we are going to be offering clergy retreats that focus on self-care. Likewise, at our trainings we also try and emphasize self-care issues. I think it could also be helpful to try and develop peer-support meetings for clergy.

Will Bearden: Jamie, have you had any contact with the National Organization for Victim Assistance? This is not a faith-based organization as such, but the Chaplaincy Relations Department of the Baptist General Convention of Texas has chosen to use its model and training for disaster preparedness. We presently have trained volunteers in Houston (Alvin), Beaumont, Corpus Christi-Beeville, Harlingen, San Antonio, Dallas, and Amarillo. The training consists of a 40 hours course leading to the ability to do Group Crisis Interventions for victims of disaster.

Jamie Aten: I am familiar with the training and am glad to hear you have had such great success in your area. That is wonderful and sounds like a good model that others could look toward.

Amy Sebring: Will is there any info on the Web about your program? (I am located in Corpus Christi.)

Will Bearden: The NOVA website is http://www.trynova.org . You can also go to http://www. bgct.org . Put your cursor on the Leadership tab and click on "chaplaincy" when the menu drops down. Scroll down a bit and you will see our NOVA section.

Barbara Fay: I am not involved in the project, just familiar with the project on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Would like to stay in touch. Currently work in Annapolis, MD in EM. Thank you.

Jamie Aten: That would be great.

John Birch: Some of these skills are useful for 'everyday' use not related to a large disaster, but perhaps community member change of health events that suddenly need support. These skills can make a community healthier (and more resilient) before a disaster, and justify effort outside of the 'disaster' situation.

Jamie Aten: I think you make a very good point. Likewise, in a disaster like Katrina, the long term mental health symptoms may need a way of looking at how we approach disaster mental health.

Isabel McCurdy: Jamie, are you affiliated with any international faith organizations?

Jamie Aten: Isabel, I am not currently affiliated with any international faith organizations. However, my work is driven by a spirit of collaboration and trying to bring groups together. If you have any recommendations it would be great if you could pass those along.

Hatchmi: Speaking as a rural hospital and an EMA member, we have a great need in both the local population and the hospital disaster scene for the work of an organized clergy disaster group. I'm afraid, though, that in the confusion of modern disaster planning, the clergy is not often invited, at least not as soon as they should be, to actively participate. I think it is important for disaster groups from ministries to contact EMA's, LEPC,s and hospitals to make their special level of help known and then have a representative sit on the planning councils in your area.

Jamie Aten: I couldn't agree more. In Mississippi we recently had a state wide disaster conference and invited clergy to attend and it was great to see their contribution; especially since in many cases, there are a large number of people who actually turn to their faith communities for help first.

Avagene Moore: From your perspective, Jamie, are you seeing an increase in overall formal disaster planning in churches? Are more churches and their leadership becoming aware of the need in their congregations? This has great potential for families and whole communities in my opinion.

Jamie Aten: Yes. I have seen more awareness and more openness among church leadership; however, I am finding that few have the resources or experience of going about developing such plans. As one pastor I interviewed noted, "After Katrina the first thing we said we were going to do was to have a plan.". He went on to add, "It's been a year later. Guess what. We still don't have." So, there is more openness, but there is a need for more training on this topic.

John Birch: CRS and several (that I know of) community churches sponsor sorties and outreach programs to partner communities in disaster or third world areas, Afghanistan for example. One such sortie is leaving in a few weeks.

Jamie Aten: That is great. I also try and encourage faith communities to "adopt" sister churches in their area and outside of the region.

Jeffery Floyd: Jamie, are you familiar with G.R.A.C.E. Community Services in Houston? They are reaching out to African American churches in the Houston area. I invited them to participate in this live but I don't know if anyone is represented.

Jamie Aten: No I am not familiar with their work but would greatly enjoy learning more about it.

Jeffery Floyd: Please go to http://www.gracecommunityservices.org when you have a chance.

Frannie Edwards: In San Jose we have an Airport Chaplaincy that takes the lead on disaster response organization for the clergy community. They have training in "emotional first aid" that they use at the airport regularly for distressed flyers, as well as in community defusing. They are included as the religious community's contact group in the City of San Jose Emergency Operations Plan. The local Council of Churches has a church disaster plan template that grew out of Loma Prieta, and the City has a flier on things that churches can plan to do to help the community after a disaster.

Jamie Aten: What a wonderful resource. I would like to invite those participating to feel free to share their resources through the website we have been developing. Or, I can add a link to our site to your materials. Feel free to e-mail me [email protected]

Amy Sebring: Jamie, can you talk a little bit about your current research findings with respect to the ongoing needs?

Jamie Aten: Sure. We have found that there is still an overwhelming need for more mental health services in south Mississippi. We have also seen that minority communities appear to have experienced greater mental health disparities. Likewise, we found that very few of the African American churches were collaborating with mental health professionals. However, Katrina appears to have opened the door for collaboration as many pastors noted being interested. Specifically they were interested in disaster screenings, disaster consultation, disaster preparedness and response planning, disaster crisis clinical services. They also wanted agencies to utilize them as forms of spiritual and social support, as many offered or developed unique ministries to attend to disaster related needs.

Amy Sebring: These continuing mental health needs are lasting much longer than previously experienced?

Jamie Aten: Yes. Typically we expect to see mental health symptoms decrease significantly after a year. But researchers have found in follow-up studies that these symptoms are much higher than with any other major disaster occurrence in the U.S. That is, long-term responses.

Will Bearden: Jamie, I also work as a hospital chaplain in a downtown San Antonio hospital. I am wondering if you have any ideas about how local pastors and hospital chaplains might work together in disaster mental health. San Antonio is designated to receive a large number of evacuees in the event of a Texas or Louisiana hurricane. If fact, we had over 40,000 from Katrina. I am also thinking of smaller scale disasters--flood, fires, explosions and such. Many hospitals are involved in community programs. Seems to me that this could be a good way to get clergy and health care professionals working together in disaster planning.

Jamie Aten: The first thing I would recommend is to open the dialogue perhaps through a series of planning meetings and brainstorming sessions. Here in MS for example, we are also trying to bring together VA chaplains and local clergy.

Ray Pena: Jamie, regarding inviting emergency management to participate in your advisory boards to facilitate integration-that's great but not enough. You/your members must become part of the community's emergency management system by joining their committees, participating in emergency management activities (planning, training, exercises, etc.) and so forth.

Jamie Aten: I agree. We are encouraging folks to get the proper local and national training.

Avagene Moore: Jamie, how are you officially promoting or marketing this program? Is there a formal campaign, press releases, etc.?

Jamie Aten: Not yet. We have done a number of trainings on disaster mental health for clergy locally. But our more formal trainings with clergy to help them get connected in the "system" will begin this fall. In terms of marketing, we hope to do this through our websites, press releases, and grass-roots methods. Also, we are working closely with a number of local faith organizations to help build the infrastructure. In our research we also found that personal spirituality (such as spiritual coping) made a major difference in how people responded to Katrina.

Amy Sebring: The least we can do is segue into your forthcoming books! Can you tell us a little about them as a future resource?

Jamie Aten: Sure Amy. Based on our work with clergy, many talked about how they wanted spiritually sensitive therapists, so, I have co-edited a text with Dr. Mark Leach (USM) on Spirituality and the Therapeutic Process. This book walks mental health professionals from their first contact with clients to termination, showing how to go about addressing the spiritual in therapy. That book comes out through APA Books on Sept. 12.

We have two other books forthcoming on culture and therapy (with Dr. Leach) and spiritually oriented interventions in counseling and psychotherapy (with Dr. McMinn and Dr. Worthington). Our goal is to help therapists and mental health professionals to become more spiritually and culturally sensitive and competent.

Frannie Edwards: Police chaplains are also a good resource for post-disaster counseling for the community. They are usually volunteers and represent a variety of faith communities.

Jamie Aten: Good point. I think they bring a unique training and skill set that can be very beneficial.

Jamie Aten: What has been other people's experience with working with faith communities around disaster issues. I have already learned about a number of wonderful resources shared to day, but wonder if there are others who might be able to share as well.

Amy Sebring: I have to agree with Ray that mental health service is not well integrated into local emergency management planning. Does it help to have a local champion to coordinate community resources in this area? Provide leadership?

Jamie Aten: Yes, indeed. Most of this work seems to really hinge on relationships, so I can't stress enough how important it is to focus on reaching out to others and identifying key community gatekeepers. In faith communities, I would also recommend that they identify a coordinator of sorts and develop a disaster ministry team. This helps to spread out the responsibility among members and keeps from overtaxing the clergy, who are already often spread quite thin.

Amy Sebring: Can you also briefly address the trust factor from your experience, or perhaps I should say the mistrust (of government) factor?

Jamie Aten: This is a major issue that needs to be addressed. For example in New Orleans many people I have talked to felt that it was a government disaster because of the levees breaking not necessarily just a natural disaster. So it important for groups in these areas to provide opportunities that bring faith community leaders and govt. leaders together in the same room so to speak to start talking about such issues and to start providing opportunities to establish or renew those relationships.

Toby Nelson: As a Chaplain with a federal medical assistance team (DMAT CA6) in the Superdome during Katrina, I was trusted much more than FEMA, etc. I always had a crowd of seekers around me, and the authorities saw it.


Amy Sebring: That's all we have time for today. Thank you very much Jamie for an excellent job and we appreciate your time and effort and sharing this valuable information. And thanks to all our participants for great questions and comments.

Please stand by just a moment while we make a couple of quick announcements. Again, the formatted transcript will be available later today. If you are not on our mailing list and would like to get notices of future sessions and availability of transcripts, just go to our home page to Subscribe.

Before we adjourn, please take a moment now, or after you review the transcript, to Rate today's session and/or write a review or post your comments. You can access the form either from today's Background Page or from our home page. If you do not have time to write a short review or comment, then please just take a moment to do the rating. It should take less than a minute, and will assist future visitors to our site to find useful information.

Our next session will be July 9th. We had originally planned to devote that session to the New Madrid Fault catastrophic planning process, but unfortunately that topic has been postponed until later in the year. Instead, we will devote the session to one of our quarterly Group Discussions and the topic will be revisions to the Stafford Act. Our point of departure will be a report from the New York University Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response titled "The Stafford Act: Priorities for Reform." See http://www.nyu.edu/ccpr/ . There is a related Webcast on this topic also available, including a keynote address by James Lee Witt.

Becoming an EIIP Partner is a way to show your support for what we do, and possibly help us to keep the services we provide available to you. It is easy to do; see the link to Partnership for You from our home page, and complete the simple form provided.

We would also like to get your feedback about topics for future Forum programs, and if you have any suggestions, please stay a moment after we adjourn to let us know.

Thanks to everyone for participating today. We stand adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Jamie for a fine job.