Disaster to courage: DU psychology students help communities recover

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DENVER — With the wild weather we’ve seen in the last month, we’ve been reminded that flooding and disasters can happen when we least expect it.

Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that can seem the hardest when you have your feet knocked out from under you.

There’s some unique training happening right in our backyard, that is there to help.

One graduate is putting that training to hard work in a university of Denver program that’s transforming passion into purpose.

“You think of Colorado as this big mountainous place– has all of our fields, and then just to realize how much of that can go underwater all at one go is impressive,” said Aimee Voth Siebert.  “There’s the flash flooding that happens against the mountains, but then there’s the sort of really huge rise of the rivers further out into the plains.”

The cold front stalled over Boulder County on September 9th, 2013.  By September 12th, the Governor declared a state of emergency.

“For just days, it was like how can we wrap our arms around this and make as big of a difference as we can,” Voth Siebert said.

Hundreds were unaccounted for and eight were dead.

“There sometimes feels like there’s two speeds during a disaster:  there are the people who are moving and moving to get stuff down and then there are the people, now in shelters and they are just waiting to hear,” Voth Siebert said.

It’s Aimee Voth Siebert and her colleagues at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s job to make sure the most basic needs of the survivors are met.

“How can we give them new clothes so they don’t feel like they are still in the water– just those sensory experiences that make people feel safer,” Voth Siebert said.  “When it comes to the psychological footprint of a disaster, there’s a much greater range because there’s a much greater range of diversity in our communities.”

Aimee was responsible for reaching out to the Spanish-speaking communities in Weld County.

“Some of them got particularly hard hit in some of those more vulnerable living spaces,” Voth Siebert said.

Her task: understanding their need activating the community’s help and watching as all expectations are beat.

Aimee said she drew from cross-cultural training she received while getting her masters in International Disasters Psychology at DU.

DU also has a Professional Psychology Center that addresses more of the processing side, the steps that must be taken long-term in order to get back to normal.

“Being able to understand that process of recovery from trauma is so incredibly helpful and it really is a process, it’s not just an event,” said Shelly Smith-Acuna, the Dean of DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

Smith-Acuna said sometimes the biggest part of therapy is taking a step back and seeing the strength you brought to bear.

“Having someone witness your story really helps you understand your own courage in getting through it.  There’s a way that it really brings out your own strength that you may take for granted when you’re alone,” Smith Acuna said.

Often, after our world is shaken, something unexpected and meaningful is born.
“These events kind of knit us together if we allow them to and can make better communities afterwards,” Voth Siebert said.

DU’s Professional Psychology Clinic offers 200 sessions a week to the community.

They run between $15 and $75 a session and they will not turn away anyone on the basis of cost.

The therapy sessions are recorded on camera and the students are later coached by DU professors.

They offer counseling for individuals, couples, families, groups and children.

Learn more about DU’s psychology clinic on its website

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