Rider to offer counseling course to aid disaster survivors and responders

Keith Fernbach
In August of 2005, Dr. Terry Pertuit was just starting her doctoral program when Hurricane Katrina struck her hometown of New Orleans. Wanting to help out, she volunteered to assist in the recovery efforts, where she saw the hurricane’s devastating effects firsthand. 
“There was an initial rush of people coming in as first responders,” she says, “but then there were also a lot of long-term grief and trauma effects that still had to be attended to years later. The psychological effects were just massive and ongoing.”
This experience inspired Pertuit, who is now an assistant professor at Rider, to create a new course, “Disaster Response, Trauma, Crisis, and Grief Counseling,” that gives graduate students in Rider’s counseling program advanced training in how to respond to disaster relief.
Pertuit says the course is in keeping with an increasing emphasis on this area in the counseling community, citing the fact that the American Counseling Association is in the process of creating a set of standards for instruction in this topic in counseling programs nationwide. 
“After events such as Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, the American Counseling Association has really had a heightened awareness of how we can contribute to working in disaster response,” she says. “They partnered with the American Red Cross to provide training for people in our area to become part of the first response team, where they can work with people on the ground after events ranging from a local apartment fire to a national disaster.”
Pertuit says that specialized training is important because the type of counseling provided in a crisis is very different than the approach one would take in a traditional long-term counseling or school counseling setting. 
“Even though we provide an overview of this kind of counseling in our classes, our students are not really getting ‘down in the dirt’ and looking at how the skills are different, or how they would work in those types of environments,” she says.
The course will examine the impact of crises, disasters and trauma on individuals, couples, families, and communities. It will also look at how to implement or evaluate emergency management plans in the community and on school campuses, and students will study several different models of disaster and trauma response, such as Psychological First Aid.
The course also looks at the differences between a crisis and trauma. Pertuit explains that a crisis is something that happens at a specific point in time, like a natural disaster, whereas trauma refers to an event or series of events that may have happened in the past, that an individual carries with him or herself over the years.
A major focus will be studying the neuroscientific principles behind traumatic responses. “When people are affected traumatically, they don’t encode memory in their brains like they do with a typical event,” Pertuit says. “It’s very important to really understand what’s actually happening in the brain and the body, in order to help people bring those memories back together so they can heal.”
She adds that it’s particularly important for counselors to be able to recognize signs of trauma, because treatment requires a different approach than they would otherwise use in long-term counseling. 
“We may ask clients to reflect upon past experiences or use techniques like mindfulness, but those things can be counterproductive to someone who has experienced trauma,” she says. “And it’s not always readily apparent, because often people tend to hide those traumatic experiences, or they don’t remember them.”  
The course will also address the emotional and psychological effects on first responders and practitioners themselves. “If you’re working with someone in a traumatic situation or a crisis response, you can begin to take on the same effects as if you had experienced that trauma or that crisis,” Pertuit says. 
This is something she witnessed firsthand when she was in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.  
“You could see the first responders physically take on the emotions of the people they were working with, just as if it had happened to them,” she says. “So the transference is something that needs to be dealt with. We have to take care of our caretakers.”  
Those interested in learning more about the course can contact Dr. Terry Pertuit at [email protected]