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Cal Fire firefighters serve Camp Fire evacuees during a community Thanksgiving dinner at California State University, Chico

Cal Fire firefighters serve Camp Fire evacuees during a community Thanksgiving dinner at California State University, Chico, in November 2018.

Justin Sullivan/Staff/Getty Images News

Already in 2023, Canadian wildfires have darkened the Northeast, tornadoes hit Texas and Oklahoma, and prolonged heat waves have affected nearly 70 million Americans. These events are an urgent reminder that faculty members need a plan for how they will support their students after disasters.

It may feel speculative—or, to some people, silly—to plan for events that may never happen. But disasters are no longer rare occurrences. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of certain types of disasters. The number of weather-related disasters has increased fivefold over the last 50 years, and we can only look forward to even more occurring in the future. In 2022 alone, the Federal Emergency Management Agency documented 90 disaster declarations in the United States. A United Nations report estimated that the number of extreme wildfires could rise by as much as 14 percent by 2030.

Colleges and universities already anticipate and prepare for these disasters. Many institutions, like my own, have emergency managers on staff. Emergency managers oversee issues like emergency communications, how to prepare for an emergency and what actions to take during an emergency.

But this planning often does not involve us as faculty members, those who are on the front lines when it comes to interfacing with students. So when disasters happen, most faculty members are at a loss for how to respond. I experienced this as a college student in New York City during Sept. 11. When classes resumed, my professors were wonderful. But they didn’t seem to know if it would be OK to mention the tragedy, or if it would be better to move on to class material.

It wasn’t their fault. Disaster researchers didn’t have the answers, either—yet. Work conducted after Sept. 11 shed light on best practices (and less-than-best) for supporting recovery after disasters.

I’ve now spent 15 years studying disaster events and how they impact people. Here is what disaster research teaches us about how we as faculty members can support students after disasters.

First, talk about the disaster, when appropriate. It’s normal to want to avoid difficult conversations, especially if you feel unprepared to have them. But intense avoidance of disaster topics is associated with higher levels of distress after disasters. Students report that being able to talk to a professor is helpful in their recovery. For example, researchers surveyed 593 students after a mass murder at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Students who talked with professors reported that they found it to be helpful. They also noted that interacting individually with professors was more helpful than class discussions.

Second, talk to students about the importance of monitoring their stressors. The number of stressors people experience after disasters increases their risk of experiencing mental health symptoms. After disasters, those stressors might look like losing books, having to move or changing to another college or university. For example, Hurricane Katrina initially displaced 84,000 college students. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, 860 students withdrew from the University of Puerto Rico to attend colleges in Florida. It’s not clear how students fared after relocation, but across studies, displacement is a major risk factor for stress and poor health.

Note too that, as with so many things, disasters are not equal-opportunity events. Social disparities place some students at higher risk for experiencing stressors in the context of disasters. Disparities determine who is able to evacuate, who has insurance coverage for destroyed property and who is able to return to an area. During the hours before Hurricane Sandy, many of New York City’s cashiers, waiters and service workers did not flee lower Manhattan. They needed to work.

Finally, talk to students about the importance of active coping. Active coping, as opposed to avoidant coping, means that people work to reduce the consequences of a stressor. In disaster contexts, that could look like seeking social support by attending a vigil, donating blood or problem-solving ways to help other students recover from the event.

In contrast, avoidant coping means trying to ignore a stressor. It’s common to engage in avoidant coping after disasters; people often increase their use of alcohol or other mood-altering substances or sleep more. Unfortunately, relying on avoidant coping can increase distress, something my co-authors and I found in our work surveying adults after Hurricane Harvey.

Faculty members can help by modeling active coping. After all, we are often trying to recover from the same disaster as our students. During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I talked to students about strategies I was using to cope, like taking daily walks after dinner. As another example, I realized that the group project I’d assigned would be very difficult for some students to complete. I created an alternative individual option for students.

Students often aren’t able to control the parameters of assignments—but they can be encouraged to discuss challenges with faculty and to help resolve those challenges. That might look like figuring out how to access texts remotely or finding contact people to discuss how the disaster may impact their program of study. We can also help students share resources among each other. For example, the University of Houston–Clear Lake offered students scholarships after Hurricane Harvey, as did California State University, Chico, after the 2018 Camp Fire.

Even if it doesn’t come in the form of a campus-wide disaster, trauma is a common human experience. More than 70 percent of adults will experience at least one traumatic event, according to a landmark study that evaluated the epidemiology of trauma exposure. The investigators didn’t just sample at-risk or vulnerable groups; in fact, they explicitly guarded against this possibility. They surveyed more than 68,000 adults from the general population of 24 countries across six continents. Investigators asked participants whether they had experienced any of 29 traumatic events, defined as exposure to threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence. Not only did most adults report trauma exposure, many also said they’d had repeated exposures to trauma—roughly 31 percent had experienced four or more traumas. The authors concluded that trauma is “nearly omnipresent,” and no single group is immune to experiencing it.

As faculty members, we aren’t substitutes for qualified mental health professionals. Most of us weren’t trained for that role. Even for those of us that were, it’s not appropriate to substitute therapy for teaching in the classroom. But it is our job to encourage student success. That means being prepared to support students in the face of tragedy. We cannot do that unless we prepare ourselves to help students after disasters.

Betty S. Lai is associate professor at Boston College and a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project, in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. She is the author of The Grant Writing Guide (Princeton University Press).

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