By Erin Carden, Red Cross Content Creation Team Member
Dr. James Halpern is a board member for the American Red Cross of the Mid-Hudson Valley and a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health (DMH) volunteer. For the past twenty years he has dedicated himself to working with the Red Cross to provide emotional support and counseling to disaster victims, serving in a leadership role at both local and large-scale national disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. In his role as a DMH volunteer, Dr. Halpern attempts to calm disaster survivors, establish a sense of safety, promote self and community efficacy, generate social connectedness, and restore hope for victims after a disaster.
“I want to alleviate some of the pain experienced by people who are suffering and struggling during the most difficult moments of their lives.”Dr. James Halpern
After becoming a Professor of Psychology and Counseling at the State University of New York at New Paltz in 1973, Dr. Halpern obtained a Ph.D. in Psychology from the New School for Social Research the following year. He joined the Red Cross after discovering the DMH function, established in the early 1990s—which deploys licensed mental health professionals to volunteer as counselors. Upon seeing the DMH volunteers present at the disaster site of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 he thought, “If something like this ever happens in the future, I want to be of assistance.”
By the time of the 2001 September 11th attacks, Dr. Halpern had both local and national DMH experience and was asked to lead the first organized team of Red Cross responders to Ground Zero. The following day he managed the World Trade Center Missing Persons Hotline, providing callers with status updates on their missing loved ones. “That was the hardest thing I ever did,” Dr. Halpern acknowledged. In addition to managing the hotline, Dr. Halpern also worked at family assistance centers, helped organize memorials, and escorted families to Ground Zero.
During his tenure as a Professor of Psychology and Counseling, SUNY New Paltz invited Dr. Halpern to bring his Disaster Mental Health expertise into the university, giving birth to the Disaster Mental Health Institute (IDMH) which he founded in 2003. IDMH began as a partnership with the Red Cross, which among other efforts, focuses on addressing the diversity of disaster mental health demands for communities at local, state, national, and global levels to guarantee that victims of disaster and trauma can access the mental health support they need. During the early stages of the partnership, Dr. Halpern’s students were trained as Red Cross volunteers and assisted with a variety of Red Cross initiatives—ranging from installing smoke alarms in private homes to traveling to Louisiana with Dr. Halpern after Hurricane Katrina.
Aside from his role as a Red Cross volunteer and Professor of Psychology, Dr. Halpern has received many state and national grants and published many articles, book chapters and books, including three textbooks on Disaster Mental Health. The most recent is: Disaster Mental Health Case Studies: Lessons Learned From Counseling in Chaos (March, 2019). This work includes seventeen case studies written by DMH professionals, many of whom are also Red Cross volunteers. Each case study discusses how responders dealt with stress, worked in different settings, and managed the needs of disaster survivors while establishing self-care plans. The seventeen case studies are separated into three categories: natural disasters; human caused disasters; and international disasters.
The authors in Lessons Learned reflect on the principle that their job is, as Dr. Halpern described, to provide “a compassionate presence when few words offer support.” This compassionate presence comes in the form of a calm, empathetic, and kind individual who develops a connection with disaster survivors—and assists with their basic needs. Dr. Halpern emphasized the important role counselors play in helping people form a coherent story about what happened to them after a disaster strikes:
“Disasters shake and shatter our assumptions about ourselves, others and the world. You don’t expect your community to burn down to the ground or for planes to fly into buildings. Your whole way of thinking about the world and yourself no longer makes sense. ”
According to Dr. Halpern, the importance of deriving meaning from and making sense out of survivors’ reality-shattering experiences was something that many of the authors found accomplished not only by DMH but also by Spiritual Care providers. In Lessons Learned, almost all DMH professionals recounted their unexpected partnership with chaplains who offer support to victims when the help they needed, as Dr. Halpern explained, “went beyond the assistance secular mental health professionals could provide.”
“When you’re dealing with mass casualty events, spiritual care providers are really good at what they do, maybe because they’re always around life and death. They look at things more broadly,” Dr. Halpern shared. Many chaplains not only supported disaster survivors, but also sought their own mental health assistance from some of the counselors included in Lessons Learned. In turn, many of the DMH workers were also counseled by spiritual providers. This partnership between mental health professionals and spiritual care providers established a circle of support where both entities guided one another in their efforts to support disaster survivors.
The authors of Lessons Learned not only wrote about their work caring for survivors, but also their obligation to care for themselves when working in environments of chaos and devastating grief. Each author described the importance of establishing a self-care plan while deployed at the disaster scene, as well as in the days to follow. Many of the authors acknowledged that they needed to take time to cry, acknowledged that they were often overwhelmed, and recognized that they needed to honor their limits. “You have to have a plan for how you’re going to be okay,” Dr. Halpern explained. “I counseled families who had lost children in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was so difficult to be part of that response.”
“You have to know how to take care of yourself because no matter how diligent and thoughtful you are, these kinds of events will impact you.”
Despite the emotional challenges DMH counselors face when supporting survivors, every author included in Lessons Learned expressed a feeling of tremendous personal growth and satisfaction for being part of someone’s healing process. “They bond with communities and survivors and feel a sense of accomplishment for being part of a humanitarian effort,” Dr. Halpern concluded. “There are horrific events that unfold on the news, but as part of the Red Cross, you can help be a part of the solution.”
Meet and hear directly from Dr. James Halpern this Sunday, November 24 at Finding Hope After Chaos, a benefit for the American Red Cross of the Mid-Hudson Valley, hosted by Paula’s Public House in Poughkeepsie.
If you are a licensed mental health professional in Eastern New York with an interest in volunteering with the American Red Cross, please visit redcross.org/volunteer or contact our local Volunteer Services team at (518) 694-5103.