Ashwood discusses mental health during disasters

States are not ready to respond to mental health needs during and following disasters such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said Dr. Terry Cline, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Cline’s remarks opened the “Emergency Mental Health and Disaster Response Conference” held March 13-14 at UCO. Various administrators, mental health professionals and first responders were among those who attended the conference, which provided information about state disaster mental health services.

“Virtually every day we read or hear about issues that, for many people, may be quite frightening and stressful,” Cline said. “At this particular time in world history, many people are living on edge, not sure what to expect next.”

Coordinated planning is the key to being prepared to respond if and when disasters strike, Cline said.

Various departments within state government speak different “languages,” making events such as the UCO conference an important step, he said.

“In the midst of a crisis, in the midst of an emergency, that is not the time we want to discover that the person sitting right next to us does not speak the same professional ‘language’ we speak,” Cline said.

“We need to have a proven track record long before that, and that begins with the planning process.”

Disasters are complicated to manage, Cline said. The type of disaster, whether natural or manmade, determines the form of response and what kind of state-supplied resources would be available, he said.

Following the Oklahoma City bombing, Project Heartland provided counseling support to victims, families of victims, first responders and others.

“What some people may not know is that project actually lasted for over five years and provided services continuously through its five years,” Cline said.

“It was a very important, critical function to provide services for individuals for several years following the bombing.”

During that period, the need for mental health services peaked around the anniversary of the bombing, an important lesson for providers, Cline said. Individuals impacted by disasters often need long-term assistance, he said.

Because of that experience, professionals from a variety of agencies sought guidance from Oklahoma following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Cline said.

“The country really turned to Oklahoma as they were grappling with finding tools that were appropriate for a mental health response to a terrorist act,” Cline said.

“The good news is that there is so little experience in the rest of the country that there was not a knowledge base.”

Keynote speaker Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management (DCEM), was one of the first state officials to arrive on the scene after the Oklahoma City bombing.

In addition to the Oklahoma City bombing, the tornado that destroyed or severely damaged thousands of homes in the metro area on May 3, 1999 created the need for federal assistance, Ashwood said.

Since then, the DCEM has administered $400 million in state and federal aid.

Ashwood also addressed issues related to incident command structure.

Emergency management is not just about being “in charge” following a disaster, it’s about coordinating response efforts, he said. Response to any disaster includes a wide range of agencies and all related personnel, Ashwood said.

“If we are going to use all of our resources to the best of our ability, everyone has to be involved,” Ashwood said. “But it’s more important to be involved in the process than it is to be involved in the response. The last thing you want to have happen is to meet the person you’re working with at the disaster scene.”

Emergency management takes four basic functions: preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation and devises the “All Hazards Plan,” Ashwood said. Mental health has a support role in the plan, but the role is undefined in that document, he said.

Ashwood said mental health professionals provide his agency valuable information about their job definition.

“Too many times emergency operations plans just sit on a shelf behind somebody’s head and they’re there,” he said. “And they’re almost like insurance in case the media ever comes up and says, ‘Do you have a plan?’ You don’t have a plan unless you’re sitting down, talking about it constantly.”

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