Introduction and a Call to Action

Preparing for the Unthinkable: Mental Health Provider Roles in Disaster Recovery

Proceedings from the SDPA Spring 2018 Workshop 


by Bob McGlenn, Ph.D.

Former Director of Santana Recovery Project and Trainer for National School Safety Center

The world is changing.

Thanks to global warming and climate change, in 2017, the United States suffered unprecedented damage from tornados and hail in the Midwest and freezing temperatures in the Southeast.  These natural disasters, along with the three category 4+ hurricanes caused an estimated total damage estimated of 300 billion dollars.  The California Wildfires caused losses of an estimated 65 billion dollars, not including the costs of land destroyed, homes lost, and human and animal death and injury.

Then there are the effects of “manmade” disasters, i.e., acts of terrorism, both foreign and domestic.  In 2017, an attacker in New York City drove a vehicle into people on a bike path killing eight  and injuring 12.  In Sutherland, Texas a terrorist entered a church during Sunday worship and killed 27 and wounded 30.  In Las Vegas, a gunman opened fire on thousands of concert-goers, killing 59 and physically wounding another 527; the psychological trauma suffered by thousands of survivors does not even feature in the toll of lives lost and maimed.

And that was just 2017. In 2018 so far, there has been an average of one school shooting a week.  The most prominent being the Parkland shooting which killed 17, wounded 14, and started a movement.

Is this the “new normal”?  Are we ready for it?

Do you know who IS ready?  The first responders: the fire fighters, law enforcement officers, medical personnel, etc., are the ones who are ready.  They learn from each event and then train and practice and prepare for what comes next.   We rely on them to save us, rescue us, and guide us through the initial tragedy.  They are the first responders.  We rely on them being ready.

But what about the “second responders,” i.e., US, the mental health providers?

Yes, we mental health providers, are indeed the second responders. We are the practitioners who, when a disaster occurs, will be comforting the grieving, treating the traumatized, and creating order out of chaos. As second responders, we have a valuable role in the recovery of our community, short and longer term. We will be there after the first responders leave.  It is our job to put the confused and emotional, metaphorical “Humpty Dumpty” back together.

Are we, the second responders, as prepared as the first responders?  That is the question that the Disaster Psychology Committee of the San Diego Psychological Association asked itself over a year ago and concluded that no, we are not.   The Disaster Preparedness Conference was first conceived in response to this insight into our lack of preparedness. It was designed to serve as an introduction to the preparation and training of second responders. In order to provide excellent, timely mental health disaster response intervention that might make a more lasting impact on recovery.

There here are some fundamental questions that we were unable to answer on the day of the conference and will not answer in this issue either: It is not a question of IF a disaster such as a major earthquake, wild fire or terrorist attack occurs in San Diego, WHEN it will occur and WHAT will it be.

Are you Ready


The topics covered in the Workshop are listed below.

County of San Diego Emergency Operations & Information Access Plan: What You Need to Know  as  a Mental Health Provider by Holly Crawford

Lessons from the Field: Toward the Way Forward in Mental Health Disaster Response by Merritt “Chip” Schreiber, Ph.D.

Responding to the Needs of Children and Families after Mass Violence and Disasters by Melissa Brymer, Ph.D., Psy.D.

Mental Health Response to the Immediate Impact of a Community Disaster: Common Challenges in Emergency Shelters by Glenn Lipson, Ph.D.

Disaster Preparedness 101 (Part 1): Practical and Psychological Issues in Response Readiness for Mental Health Professionals by Wendy Tayer, Ph.D.

Disaster Preparedness 101 (Part 2):  How to Get Ready at Home and in Your Practice in Four Simple Stepby Deborah Hopper, Ph.D.

Kindness: Poem by Naomi Shihab Nye

***Editor’s Note: The featured articles are not verbatim transcriptions of the authors’ presentations at the SDPA Workshop on “Preparing for the Unthinkable: Mental Health Provider Roles in Disaster Recovery.” The transcriptions have been edited for content, length, copy, and grammar for the purposes of this publication.*** 

McGlenn picDr. McGlenn is a clinical and school psychologist who, in addition to maintaining a private practice since 1977, has experience in a variety of mental health areas.  He has worked as a school psychologist at both the elementary and secondary levels, trained and supervised doctoral level interns at area psychiatric hospitals and community based clinics, and consulted with a residential treatment center for severely disturbed adolescents.  Dr. McGlenn designed and directed the implementation of the crisis response plan to the Santana and Granite Hills High School shootings in March 2001.  He served as Coordinator of the Santana Recovery Project, which provided services and treatment to those traumatized by the event.  Since the incident he has spoken to numerous groups concerning school safety, treatment, and violence prevention and has worked for the National School Safety Center as a trainer for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program and as a consultant to the Department of Homeland Security.   In 2009, he released his first book, Winning at the Card Game of Life.

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