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James Halpern and Phyllis Freeman

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James Halpern & Phyllis Freeman, Professors of Psychology, Institute for Disaster Mental Health
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James Halpern and Phyllis Freeman

In the wake of the tragic events of September 11th, the tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina, there is a growing need for people trained in disaster relief. Recognizing this growing need, psychology professors James Halpern and Phyllis Freeman have used their backgrounds in psychology and disaster mental health to coordinate and develop the Institute for Disaster Mental Health (IDMH) at SUNY New Paltz.

When Professor Halpern first entered the field of disaster mental health in 2001 as a volunteer in Baton Rouge, LA after Tropical Storm Allison, there were few properly trained experts in the field. As someone with a modest background in disaster relief, he soon found himself in a leadership position, coordinating with the Red Cross, to assist people traumatized by September 11th.

Recognizing Professor Halpern's work and the need for such a program, SUNY New Paltz introduced the Institute for Disaster Mental Health in 2004. "The idea was to have an institute that could filter the research and understand the science and practice," said Professor Halpern, the director of the institute.

The IDMH now hosts an annual conference on disaster mental health and supports an academic minor on the subject. Professor Halpern and Professor Freeman, the chair of the IDMH advisory board, organize the conference and teach classes within the minor. Halpern teaches Disaster Psychology, and Freeman teaches Health Psychology. As part of the Disaster Psychology course, students receive Red Cross training and certification in Introduction to Disaster Services, Overview of Disaster Mental Health, and Mass Care following Disaster.

Next semester, students will have the chance to put into practice some of the skills they have learned. There will be a fieldwork course offered in Disaster Psychology through which students will have the opportunity to assist in disaster planning, preparedness and response either at the local or national level. Professor Halpern is looking into the possibility of taking the group to help in the relief process in Louisiana. "We're giving students the opportunity to take part in a meaningful experience," said Professor Halpern.

While the minor caters to students, the IDMH's May 2006 conference will appeal to a broader audience: disaster mental health professionals, students and the community. The conference will commemorate five years since 9/11. "We're looking at the long-term effects of stress and complicated grief reactions," said Freeman.

The two hope the conference will raise awareness about disaster mental health and take the IDMH a step further in providing effective training in the mid-Hudson region.

Related Information:
Institute for Disaster Mental Health
Minor in Disaster Mental Health
News Release: SUNY New Paltz now offers minor in disaster studies
Professor Halpern on CNN after Hurricane Katrina