Emotional Rescue: Students Help Ease the Anguish of Katrina Victims

By Amy Biderman

Disaster relief isn’t just rebuilding bridges and homes. It’s about helping survivors deal with staggering grief and loss—a largely ignored effort that Mason professor Fred Bemak is addressing through Counselors Without Borders, the first program of its kind at a U.S. university. “The mental health needs in the Gulf are overwhelming and are not being met,” says Bemak, a professor of counseling and development. As part of the project, 14 Counseling and Development Program students from Mason’s College of Education and Human Development assisted victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Bemak recognized the tremendous impact counseling and development students could have on the underserved mental health needs in the Gulf—and the invaluable experience they would receive in turn—if they were allowed to counsel hurricane victims under the supervision of licensed Mason faculty. So he contacted Walter Frazier, president of the Mississippi Mental Health Counselors Association, who paved the way for the project.

The students underwent intensive training on the skills they would need for disaster counseling before making their initial trip to Mississippi in November. Once there, they received logistical support and collaborated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Mississippi Mental Health Counselors Association, and the Mississippi Department of Mental Health.

 With Gulf Port, Mississippi, as their base, the volunteers traveled to seven disaster relief centers across the Gulf Coast, counseling hurricane victims and relief workers. The group saw almost 600 clients, all with deeply moving stories.

“We could have tripled the number [of volunteers] and still not met the need,” Bemak says. “We heard endless stories of struggle, loss, and grief, along with graphic descriptions—things you didn’t see on TV. People were desperate, scared, and angry.”