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VOL. 132 | NO. 234 | Monday, November 27, 2017

New Task Force Focused on Mental Health Response After Disasters

By Andy Meek

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The Shelby County Health Department, working with several community partners, has assembled a first-of-its-kind volunteer task force in Tennessee that will respond to behavioral and mental health challenges after mass-casualty disasters.


The Mid-South Disaster Behavioral Health Response Team, or DBHRT, is currently composed of about 100 volunteers. Shelby County Health Department officer Dr. Helen Morrow said the plan is to grow that number to 400 by the year 2020.

The volunteers come from a diversity of backgrounds, from fields that include education, medicine, mental health, nursing, psychiatry and more. They’re trained to respond to the emotional and mental health needs that follow a major, mass-casualty event like a natural disaster, act of terrorism or incident like a mass shooting.

The formation of the task force has been in the works for a few years now. Its launch is a response to the fact that, once immediate medical needs have been addressed, such disasters can still leave a mental health impact that’s long-lasting and results in lingering scars on individuals, families and communities.

That’s according to Shelby County Health Department director Dr. Alisa Haushalter.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said the efforts of Haushalter, her department and the team of volunteers serve “a vital role in times of crisis.”

Volunteers undergo standardized training that consists of six core courses, including Psychological First Aid and PsySTART, a mental health triage system. Ongoing education will include such topics as active shooter incidents, children in disasters, cultural competency, infectious diseases, and shelter operations.

“Think about people that have been through a disaster and have had their homes destroyed, or they’re displaced or they’ve been involved in a terrorist event,” Morrow said. “How do they deal with this? What are their needs? Those need to be assessed.”

Morrow learned years ago about the impact of losing your home in a disaster or witnessing a horrific event, and how people respond to that and to interventional changes.

“And people need to know how to make these assessments of people, how to assess their needs,” she said.

Some people, she said, can be very talkative after such an event, while other people “can be kind of shell-shocked. And you have to know how to assess those people to know how to help them.”

The DBHRT is intended to supplement local resources, not replace them. The team will work with communities throughout the Memphis area, including in Shelby, Tipton, and Fayette counties in Tennessee; DeSoto County, Mississippi; and Crittenden County, Arkansas.

In a large-scale incident, if needed, the team can also deploy anywhere in the U.S. in response to an official request for help.

Volunteers who wants to join submit an application and if approved – information can be found at www.shelbytnhealth.com – they’ll start taking free courses offered by groups including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Texas A&M University and national subject-matter experts.

Volunteers have to be at least 18 years old. Holding current licensure in any behavioral health field is preferred, but not required.

The response team is sponsored by the Shelby County Health Department's 150th Medical Reserve Corps.

Program guidance is provided by the Tennessee Region VII Disaster Mental Health Response Committee, which is comprised of Alliance Healthcare Services, Red Cross of the Mid-South, Youth Villages, Shelby County Office of Preparedness, City of Memphis Fire Department, Shelby County Schools’ Mental Health Center, Methodist University Hospital and Universal Health Services.

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