IDMH Conference To Focus On Communication

The eleventh annual Institute for Disaster Mental Health (IDMH) conference will meet Friday, April 25 in the Lecture Center to discuss the challenges of disseminating messages during complex and rapidly changing disasters.

IDMH at SUNY New Paltz was founded to “help prepare students, community members, paraprofessionals and professionals in the helping fields to prevent, prepare for and care for others following a disaster via evidence-based disaster mental health interventions,” according to their website.

The title of this year’s conference: “Why Don’t People Listen? — The Whole Community and Communicating in a Crisis,” will focus on the importance of communication during a disaster.

Dr. Karla Vermeulen, a sociology professor at SUNY New Paltz as well as the acting director for the IDMH at SUNY New Paltz, said the target audience for the conference is mental health experts as well as first responders.

Vermeulen said experiencing a disaster is traumatic — it leaves those who have gone through it with numerous questions, such as: Are my things safe? When can I go home?

Vermeulen said these common questions and concerns in light of a disaster underscore the importance of communication in these situations. Vermeulen made reference to recent events, like the missing airliner in Malaysia, the mudslide in Washington and Hurricane Sandy, that she said reinforce the conference’s importance.

Eric Klineberg, a sociology professor at New York University and author of the book “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” will speak on the topic of social infrastructure and disaster that takes place in the form of “super-storms” as a result of climate change.

The conference will include other presentations and workshops that will address “specific hazards and populations, with representatives familiar with the challenges of message dissemination,” according to their website.

Wendy Harman, director of social strategy for the American Red Cross, will speak on the strengths as well as the limitations of social media and how helpful new technology can be in disasterous situations.

Vermeulen said strategies on how to disperse warnings prior to expected disasters and why people do not always adhere to warnings they receive will be explored during the conference.

“We must understand the reasons why people don’t always listen to warnings — why they don’t evacuate,” Vermeulen said.

Vermeulen said a level of “victim blaming” often occurs toward those who choose not to evacuate when confronted with a natural disaster.

Instead of blaming those who do not evacuate, Vermeuelen said her hope is to explore some of the practical reasons why some do not leave — “What are the barriers to that action?” — and what people can do to better convince people to leave.

Those who have gone through a trauma from experiencing a disaster will likely experience depression, grief, an inability to focus and an inability to maintain employment and certain relationships, Vermeulen said.

Vermeulen said she hopes to dispel the myth that a person will “bounce back” from an incident within a few weeks or months. She said those expectations are not realistic and there is often a stigma that those effected feel when they do not recover immediately.