"I needed to be a part of this": One alumna's journey with the Institute for Disaster Mental Health

As mental health counselors grow into one of the fastest-growing professions in the U.S., the Institute for Disaster Mental Health (IDMH) at SUNY New Paltz is at the heart of the effort to prepare a new generation of professionals for the many challenges of working as first responders: not only learning how to support survivors of disasters and trauma, but also developing their own coping strategies to endure the challenges that come along with this life-saving responsibility.

“When you're in the field of disaster mental health, you’re always on the clock,” said Taylor O’Connor ’21 ’23g (Psychology; Mental Health Counseling), who worked with IDMH as a graduate student. “I hadn't experienced that level of intensity in my previous work, but in this role things can happen so quickly.”

O’Connor is one of many students at New Paltz who took advantage of the opportunities offered by the IDMH.

“When I was considering options for continuing my education, I learned about the IDMH and the tremendous work they were doing,” she said. “I knew I needed to be a part of this.”

For 20 years, IDMH has advocated for mental health support as a cornerstone of disaster relief through both its academic and community programs. Year-round, the Institute supports aspiring mental health counselors with hands-on courses and experiential learning opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, while also providing industry-leading professional development for practitioners working in these fields.

O’Connor joined the IDMH as a graduate assistant, working closely with peer students to help advise and guide their academic paths through opportunities like IDMH’s interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in disaster studies.

Other assignments saw her working with somewhat higher-profile individuals. O’Connor deployed her skills in a support role when IDMH coordinated press travel logistics for President Joe Biden’s 2022 visit to Poughkeepsie, New York.

The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity gave O’Connor a sense of perspective she now takes with her as a licensed mental health counselor. She keeps a photo of her meeting with President Biden as a memento of the experience and a reminder of the level of excellence she seeks to bring to her role, every single day.

“If I ever feel doubtful about the work I’m doing, I can always look back at this photo of this experience I had as a 23-year-old graduate student, and know that I can handle whatever comes my way.”
- Taylor O'Connor '21 '23g

O’Connor went on to translate her experiences at SUNY New Paltz in a role as a licensed clinician in Rochester, New York, working with high school students dealing with ongoing mental health issues and trauma.

“Unique training is necessary to be able to work with people experiencing acute trauma and those who have ongoing trauma,” she said. “Through working at IDMH and going through the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, I learned how to respond to crises and disasters, whether it be individual crises or those on a larger scale,” she said.


The Institute for Disaster Mental Health at SUNY New Paltz seeks to address the diversity of disaster mental health demands in the region, state, nation, and the global community so that all those impacted by disaster and trauma have access to the mental health support they need. To accomplish this goal, IDMH provides leadership to advance the field of disaster mental health and trauma response through training, research, consultation, and service. IDMH works to establish and disseminate best practices in order to ensure that all disaster mental health services are evidence-supported and culturally sensitive.


IDMH offers an Advanced Certificate in Trauma & Disaster Mental Health: A 15-credit, fully online post-baccalaureate credential tailored for educators, counselors, social workers and care providers.


Visit the Institute for Disaster Mental Health website to learn more about its programs and services.