Most of us spent last week watching Hurricane Harvey’s ongoing devastation with a combination of disbelief and dismay. Although San Antonio was spared, the same cannot be said for many other Texas cities. Here at UTSA, approximately 15% of our students come from areas affected by the hurricane. Whether or not their families lost their homes and businesses, they have all lived through an extremely stressful week, and it is going to take the state months or even years to recover. Research on disasters indicates that the process of psychological recovery tends to follow a predictable trajectory.
During the acute stage, people are absorbed with the effort to anticipate, avoid, or survive the event. The emphasis is on saving lives and we all become riveted by news of tragedy and heroism. Once the acute event has occurred, we move into the honeymoon stage. People return to their damaged property, but remind themselves that it could have been worse. Volunteer organizations race to send volunteers and donations, and the news is filled with stories of humanity and caring. Unfortunately, this stage tends to be followed by disillusionment. Victims of the disaster find themselves struggling to clean up their property, dealing with the insurance bureaucracy, and realizing that the rest of the world has moved on without them. For many folks the recovery process will take weeks or months, others may take years to get back on their feet again.
So how do we, as faculty members, help our students navigate the aftermath of this disaster, while still meeting their course requirements and staying on academic track? Many of us have already been fielding emails from students stuck by flood waters, who will now be coming back to campus stressed and behind in their work.
While we can offer assignment leniency and help catching up with assignments, students will still have to find ways to manage their emotions and time in order to keep up. Encouraging them to seek help from the Tomas Rivera Center, SI’s and TA’s may help, as will helping them figure out how to triage their efforts. The Academic Success Center at Oregon State has some useful suggestions for students who have waited too late to study.
However, many students will also be experiencing significant emotional distress. Some will feel guilty about not having time to help their families cope, while others will be concerned about their family’s financial situation, and whether they can afford to stay in school. Those who lived through the storm may develop symptoms of PTSD including trouble sleeping, concentrating, and managing their emotions. As the recovery process bogs down, and class work gets harder both students and family members will have trouble supporting each other. At this point the best thing faculty members can do is to help students get the support they need here on campus. UTSA Counseling Services offers no cost individual counseling for students and has arranged Harvey support groups as well. If you are acutely worried about a student’s well being you can also make a report to the Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) so they can assess the student’s situation and provide the necessary help. Students can also be referred to the student Ombudsperson Carol Gonzalez for assistance figuring out University regulations such as medical or psychological withdrawals, or emergency financial aid support.
However, it is also crucial to take care of yourself. Balancing the demands of research, teaching, and service is stressful in itself, without adding a hurricane to the mix. If you find yourself having trouble concentrating, sleeping, or managing your temper it may be a sign that you need to spend some time paying attention to your own mental health. Taking some time for yourself, finding someone to talk to, and focusing on your own needs will actually make you more effective in the long run. School is a marathon, not a sprint, so surely we can use our hard earned skills to help our students go the distance as well.
Mary McNaughton-Cassill, Ph.D.
Professor, UTSA Department of Psychology