In 2020, there were a total of 416 natural disaster events worldwide. Natural disasters cause unplanned displacement and disruption on college students; In order to adequately support students, colleges and universities need to enact programs that meet students’ mental health and basic needs while also addressing impacts to academic progress. As institutional administrators develop student emergency aid programs, they can look to past examples of effective student support response to natural disasters. Here are several examples of l disaster preparedness that build resilient campuses and effective student emergency support.
Wildfires have been a consistent, natural part of California’s landscape; however, the frequency and severity have steadily increased over the years. Colleges and universities see the impact of these fires firsthand. Following the 2017 Tubbs Fire in California, Santa Rose Junior College’s enrollment dropped 6%, and a student survey revealed that numerous students felt stressed and in need of mental health support. At Sonoma State University, demand for counseling grew by over 50%, and therapists from other Cal State campuses came to help.
During the 2018 Camp Fire in California, Butte College and the California State University, Chico, closed for two weeks, which cost Butte College almost $6.5 million and displaced over 800 students. Those 800 displaced students, in addition to the one-fourth of Butte College students who had already reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives before the fire, saw their struggle to afford food, housing, and health care magnified when the school shut down.
Butte College’s basic needs center staff distributed laptops, gas gift cards, and mental health counseling information in parking lots, and the college allowed students to drop classes with no financial penalty. Recognizing the need to guarantee employee needs would also be met, the college put staff, including hourly workers, on paid leave. College staff also helped students’ families and community members apply for FEMA assistance.
Butte’s enrollment dropped by 12% after the fire, but demand for basic needs services increased. Over 1,000 students were visiting the campus basic needs resource center in early 2020, compared with 250 a week before the fire. The campus added a second basic needs location in response and piloted a twelve-week counseling program to address post-traumatic stress disorder.
Emergencies by definition are unexpected, and institutions need to design broader emergency aid programs to support unplanned natural disasters. In October 2019, ten tornadoes struck the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Dallas College had just launched a partnership with Edquity, allowing them to quickly implement a disaster relief program to provide students with the emergency cash they needed. Immediately after the tornadoes struck, more than 100 students filed applications to receive emergency grants. In the next few weeks, nearly 1,000 Dallas College students used the Edquity app to apply for emergency funds. Approved students were able to receive funds within 48 hours.
“Dallas College’s students needed immediate support due to an unplanned natural disaster, and that’s exactly what student emergency services aim to do,” says Edquity CEO David Helene. “We’re committed to making it easier for students to receive emergency funds so they can continue learning and making progress toward graduation.”
Colleges across the country are embracing the concept of resilient campuses that can prepare for and respond to disasters. Sonoma State University has trained at least three people to work in shifts in a single disaster management role. Chico State trains its social work students to help families create disaster preparedness plans and offers a forest therapy program that trains educators and mental health professionals to help trauma survivors heal in nature.
Mental health preparedness is a critical way to lay the groundwork for staff and student resilience in the event of a natural disaster. Schools that address staff and student mental health comprehensively now will have a community that is more prepared to deal with adversity. A 2016 American Psychological Association study found that 25-50% of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of adverse mental health effects, so those who have tools for coping and self-care will be in the best position to survive the emergency and help others.
Schools can prepare themselves to support students’ mental health in natural disasters by:
While school shutdowns due to fires, hurricanes, floods, and other emergencies cost schools money and can negatively impact enrollment, many schools impacted by natural disasters become lifelines for students and surrounding community members. Schools who have experienced natural disasters serve as examples of best practices for supporting students and communities through these events, and colleges and institutions have the opportunity to prepare to be resilient in the face of future emergencies.