As a psychologist, I have been working with individual, family, organizational, and community crises for over three decades, but I can still remember vividly the event that led to my involvement. When I was in college, someone in my fiancée’s neighborhood killed himself with a shotgun. After the EMTs took away the body and while others comforted the grief-stricken widow, my future brother-in-law and I volunteered to clean the basement recreation room, the scene of the suicide. We were prepared for the blood, but not the skull fragments and bits of gray matter. Armed with rubber gloves, sponges, mops, buckets, and disinfectant, we steeled ourselves and began gathering together the scattered pieces of this puzzle that used to be a living, breathing human being. I decided then and there that I wanted to do whatever I could as a psychologist to prevent such a tragedy.
When I began my graduate work in clinical psychology at Purdue University (IN), I quickly gravitated to two professors, Don Hartsough and Tom Zarle, who founded a local crisis hotline. The work was intensive, but also deeply satisfying. Collaborating with our professors, my fellow students and I served as volunteer staff members, developed policies and procedures, designed training programs for new volunteers, and carried out research projects on telephone crisis intervention. In my formal psychological training at the Purdue clinic, I was involved in assessment, diagnosis, and treatment in a traditional setting with clients who had made appointments during regular office hours. In marked contrast, at the crisis hotline, my work often took place in the middle of the night with anonymous callers who were struggling with such issues as suicide, sexual assault, and bad LSD trips.
Near the end of my graduate training, a series of tornadoes struck communities throughout the Midwest, including a small town near Purdue University, where eight people were killed and many homes were damaged or destroyed. Instead of waiting for people to call the hotline, our professors led the crisis team in developing one of the first outreach programs that provided psychosocial services to the survivors of a natural disaster. We trained volunteers to go door-todoor, offering practical assistance, referral information, and emotional support.
Although I am now a full-time professor, I continue to be involved in crises as a volunteer, trainer, consultant, and intervener. I regularly meet with firefighters, EMTs, and other first responders after critical incidents. I train volunteers and professionals in crisis intervention skills. I consult with schools, agencies, and organizations to implement psychosocial interventions following community-wide catastrophes. The work has been gut-wrenching, painful, and even heartbreaking at times, but I also have never found as much professional fulfillment and personal inspiration as I have in my encounters with fellow human beings whose courage, compassion, and hope continue to amaze me.
Of course, all clinical and counseling psychologists, no matter their area of specialization, will work with people in crisis. Therefore, your future training will necessarily include some attention to such concerns as suicide and trauma. However, if you want to specialize in emergency services, crisis intervention, or disaster work, then you will want to consider your career plans when you explore possible graduate schools. Look for programs that offer a concentration or emphasis in this area. See if any faculty members have practiced or published in crises and disasters. Most importantly, look at yourself. Carefully consider your tolerance for discomfort, ambiguity, distractions, and confusion. If you are willing to accommodate to these circumstances, then you may be a good match for providing psychological services in a “ground zero” environment.
I would like to end by offering you some unsolicited personal advice. As you contemplate a possible future in this field, keep in mind that you do not have to wait until you are a psychologist to be a valuable resource in a crisis situation. Right now, you can offer a supportive presence to someone who is struggling at a crucial point in life. You already can play a part in helping the victim of a crisis to become a survivor, who can then go on to thrive in life. So, seek out opportunities to make a positive difference in troubled times as a volunteer, mentor, friend, relative, and fellow human being. In an emergency, something new emerges. In fact, most people who have faced traumatic events later report that resolving these crises led to personal growth. Eventually, they discovered that they had emerged from the crisis with greater maturity, deeper relationships, and more meaningful lives. As you respond to the distress calls of others, you may discover your own professional calling.Lennis Echterling, PhD
, is Professor and Director of Counseling Psychology at James Madison University (VA). He has more than 30 years of experience in crises and disasters, including Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attacks. More recently, he was a crisis counselor after the shootings at Virginia Tech University. His books include Crisis Intervention: Promoting Resilience and Resolution in Troubled Times, Thriving! A Manual for Students in the Helping Professions, and Beyond Brief Counseling and Therapy.