Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Feb. 7, 2013 Volume 34, No. 18

New MU center to examine emotional aftermath of terrorism, disasters

Alternate text

HELPING SURVIVORS J. Brian Houston, standing outside Switzler Hall, is co-director of the Terrorism and Disaster Center. Houston wants to help and learn more about victims of natural disasters and human-caused tragedies. The center is supported by a $2.4 million grant. Photo by Rachel Coward


The MU Terrorism and Disaster Center hopes to establish a statewide presence

Dozens of people were killed when Hurricane Sandy swept through New Jersey and eastern New York in late October. Damage to New Jersey alone is estimated in the billions of dollars.

Though the storm has passed, the survivors must deal with its aftermath, both financial and mental. Relief efforts will provide for victims’ immediate needs, such as housing, food and water, and federal aid will help residents and officials clean up the region and rebuild. But the emotional consequences for disaster survivors will remain. 

A University of Missouri disaster communication expert is using a $2.4 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to explore ways to help disaster victims. J. Brian Houston, co-director of the Terrorism and Disaster Center (TDC) and assistant professor in communication, said center staff will focus on mental and behavioral health preparedness. The center will examine the long-term emotional repercussions on victims of natural disasters and violent rampages, such as the Dec. 14 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. 

Center staff will also study the resilience of people affected by these calamities.

In an age when extreme weather and mass shootings are not uncommon, the creation of the Terrorism and Disaster Center is timely.

Prior to joining Mizzou’s communication department in 2010, Houston worked with Betty Pfefferbaum, a child psychiatrist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Pfefferbaum, a leader in the field of child disaster mental health, is co-director of the TDC at MU. The center’s four-year grant is the largest ever for the Department of Communication.

Houston said TDC researchers from multiple disciplines at MU will investigate the impact of social capital, which is the quality of community relationships; communication among peers and their leaders; economic resources; and community competence, which is the ability to solve problems.

The center will train school teachers, counselors and mental health practitioners in Joplin, Mo., Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis and New Orleans to develop, implement and evaluate crisis interventions and resources that help communities prepare for natural disasters and human-caused calamities. 

 “People will move on from Hurricane Sandy, but storm victims will be recovering for a long time,” Houston said. “People in Joplin, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are still recovering today.”

Houston also said that there are needs that exist that we don’t understand from a scientific or psychological perspective. 

“With this grant, we want to figure out what is needed at that stage and what we can develop to address those needs,” he said. 

Houston also hopes to examine why some survivors remain mentally strong in crisis. 

“A lot of people faced with challenges figure out how to deal with them and are able to recover from them,” he said. “They don’t necessarily get back to where they were before the crisis, but they are able to function and go on about their lives. We are interested in understanding what makes people resilient. What makes them be able to deal with challenges without getting derailed? At the same time, when people aren’t resilient for whatever reason, we want to recognize that and intervene then, as well.”

He is also closely following the discussion in America about gun control. 

“Often, people want to talk about a crisis and then move on, but the victims directly affected will be recovering for a long time,” he said. “We need to have effective conversations that result in action.”

TDC is working closely with the Missouri Department of Mental Health, the Department of Health & Senior Services and the Ozark Center, a Joplin mental health facility. Houston hopes to work with schools in St. Louis and Kansas City, as well. 

“We want to have real presence in the state so that we are fulfilling one of our purposes of this university of serving the citizens of Missouri,” he said.

 — Kate McIntyre and Sue Richardson