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Responding to the mental health of students and school staff after the SC Flood 2015

Response and Resilience During the 2015 Flood

The S.C. floodwaters in October 2015 took away life and property, but they also claimed something you can’t see as readily: peace of mind.

Looking to assess impacts on some of the most psychologically vulnerable victims of the disaster, College of Education faculty member Jonathan Ohrt is leading a team of researchers focused on the Richland and Lexington county school systems.

“In a natural disaster, schools tend to be a meeting place where there are resources for students and their families as well,” Ohrt says. “It’s just a place that people from the community have come to rely on.”

Interviewing mental health professionals who were primarily school counselors, Ohrt’s team is documenting some of the invisible long-term wounds that the flooding imprinted on young psyches.

“One student, whenever it rains, now gets very nervous because she’s wondering if something bad is going to happen. ‘Are we going to have to leave our house?’” Ohrt says. “Another counselor is working with a family that still isn’t in a stable place. They’re having to live in hotels — eight months after the event. Most of us, I wouldn’t say we’ve forgotten, but we’ve moved on in many ways.”

Members of Ohrt’s team, which included Department of Educational Studies colleagues Dodie Limberg and Ryan Carlson, can readily empathize with students and understand the school professionals helping them work through the situation, as well. Two team members were school counselors and another was a mental health counselor in K-12 systems before moving into academia. Coincidentally, all three were in central Florida (in different locations) in 2005 and experienced Hurricane Wilma as it plowed across the state.

“So we were kind of on the front lines before, and now we’re looking at it from a researcher’s perspective as well,” Ohrt says. “We all had some personal experience and actual work experience, which is one of the reasons we felt compelled to work on the project.”