James Madison University

NEW COLLEGES FORMED A plan to reorganize the College of Integrated Science and Technology into two colleges took effect July 1, 2012. The new colleges are the College of Health and Behavioral Studies and the College of Integrated Science and Engineering.


Graduate Psychology Faculty Focus on Crisis Response

By: Amanda Rivera
Posted: March 6, 2007

See the Photo Album from the Trip

PHOTO: IndiaThe word “crisis” is typically used to describe a time of instability or chaos. Graduate Psychology professors, Dr. Lennis Echterling and Dr. Anne Stewart, are attempting to break that mold. Looking at a crisis as a combination of factors rather than a single event, they hope to use their skills to prepare for and work through the aftermath of such devastations. “A crisis response isn’t something that comes out of nowhere. It’s a totally reactive thing,” states Dr. Stewart. Grave to small, they’ve worked on various disaster interventions, including Hurricane Katrina and the Asian Tsunami, hoping to educate others along the way.

Like preparing for an upcoming storm, Dr. Echterling and Dr. Stewart have been cultivating their skills as crisis specialists over the years, using both everyday occurrences and catastrophic events as references. While working as a volunteer at a crisis hotline during graduate school, Dr. Echterling was part of an outreach intervention after a tornado hit nearby. This was one of the first interventions that focused on psychosocial aspects of a disaster. Beginning with a slightly alternative route, Dr. Stewart entered the working world as a teacher for special-needs children. However, she soon realized that she wanted to be able to help her pupils beyond the confines of a classroom. “There were so many needs that they had and after having a long-standing relationship with them, there were looking to me to respond to. I knew I didn’t have the skills or expertise qualifications to intervene, so I went back and got my psychology (degree) and kept that holistic focus on intervention,” she says.

PHOTO: IndiaWorking at JMU together, Dr. Echterling and Dr. Stewart have used their different backgrounds to complement their outreach interventions. “In a crisis, we’re not sure who’s going to be available and what resources are going to be available and we need to cast our net broadly and develop our relationships when it’s not a time of crisis,” Dr. Stewart states.

Internationally known experts, Dr. Echterling and Dr. Stewart have recently returned from a workshop in India educating other trainers on psychosocial interventions for disaster survivors. Traveling to an area heavily affected by recent devastations, the two JMU professors were able to apply their belief that a crisis is an ongoing process. Dr. Stewart explains, “We’re going to have crises [in India]. We’re in a place where this is going to occur and we need to develop ways to have flexible responses.” Providing other professionals with the knowledge to employ “flexible responses” was an important aspect of the workshop. “There are everyday disasters; everyday crises that people are going through. The skills that we are emphasizing in our training are completely applicable,” says Dr. Echterling. The workshop, sponsored by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India Academy of Psychology, and the American Psychological Association, also focused on a multidisciplinary approach to disaster intervention, uniting psychologists, social workers and medical professionals. “Their training institute is committed to inter-professional work and having their training be responsive to community needs, so there’s a social consciousness that’s a part of their training program,” says Dr. Stewart.

PHOTO: IndiaAs president and founder of the Virginia Association for Play Therapy, Dr. Stewart’s background surfaced as an important tool for conveying essential information on working with disaster survivors. Dr. Echterling states, “Besides the content, it was the process that was a contribution…These are highly internationally-known, nationally-respected professors, researchers, practitioners engaged in play.” A mutual feeling between the trainers and trainees, “Probably the thing that we really have to offer is our presence,” one professor said to Dr. Echterling about the training at the workshop. “It was just striking to me to come clear around the world and have somebody resonate like that in such a deep way,” the JMU professor says in response. Dr. Echterling and Dr. Stewart’s vital roles at the workshop were perceptible to JMU Graduate students Danielle Budash and Sujata Sharma as well. “I think the thing that stood out too about [Dr. Echterling and Dr. Stewart’s] presentation, there was a more positive focus and a focus on resilience, so that was very uplifting,” says Danielle.

Back home at JMU, Dr. Stewart and Dr. Echterling take a more localized approach to crisis intervention training by offering courses and workshops to students. One such opportunity will be the 4th Annual Virginia Association for Play Therapy (VAPT) Winter Workshop: Play Therapy with Children Affected by Natural or Human-Made Disasters on February 23. Using VAPT as a venue, Dr. Stewart maintains a focus on disaster interventions. Dr. Echterling, on the other hand, continues to work with response teams and law enforcement officers offering psychosocial assistance to local crises. Together, they have resumed their monthly trips to spend time with families who have loved ones deployed in Iraq. Combining their efforts, Dr. Echterling and Dr. Stewart reinforce the notion that a crisis is a never-ending battle, but due to their devoted work, they are hopeful it won’t be a solo one: “You get the pyramid effect, where eventually more and more people can be prepared to deal with disaster intervention,” says Dr. Echterling.