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Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery: Linking Behavioral Health with Public Health Systems

January 28, 2008
by Marcie Addy

On January 24, public health, behavioral health, academia professionals and state health leaders convened to discuss preparing for disasters and their psychological aftermath. The goal of the conference was for participants to be able to identify key areas for collaboration between public health and behavioral health providers on the local and regional level related to all disaster preparedness as well as to recognize key trends in evidence-based practice for early intervention in disasters and emergencies. The conference guided participants through the next steps for collaboration between public health and behavioral health providers.

In his opening remarks, Thomas A. Kirk, Jr., Ph.D., described the gathering of state, education, and health workers, as “a landmark conference”. Kirk, the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction services told the audience that our success in preparing for disasters and in our response to the communities requires collaborations and partnerships on a local/regional level.

The conference featured two keynote speakers. Dr. Brian Flynn, associate director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, and former Rear Admiral and Assistant Surgeon General with the United States Public Health Service, and Dr. Linda Degutis, director of the Yale Center for Public Health Preparedness at Yale School of Public Health and president of the American Public Health Association.

Dr. Flynn began the morning with a presentation entitled “Integrating Behavioral and Public Health in Extreme Events: Problems, Priorities, and Potential,” in which he compared why behavioral health and public health professionals must integrate to why individuals get married. People meet and realize they have things in common, and get married for a variety of reasons including shared values and realizing their futures are together. Flynn humanized the integration of the health professions, noting similar histories of being neglected in health structures and priorities as well as the professions’ shared values and models of approach and intervention. “Without behavioral health and public health being in a functioning and growing relationship,” said Flynn, “the public’s health will suffer.” The two professions can prevent and reduce fear, distress and illness while promoting and protecting the health of those in our communities. However, Flynn commented that the relationship between behavioral and public health can not be exclusive. The professions need to integrate with emergency management and work with schools, local health care providers, and law enforcement amongst many others.

In “Public Health Systems and Public Health Preparedness,” Dr. Degutis said, “The time to get to know each other [public health and behavioral health professionals] is not in the midst of a crisis, but while planning for the health of the community.” Describing the role of public health, Degutis explained the three core functions of the profession:

  1. Assessment and monitoring of the health of communities and populations at risk to identify health problems and priorities;
  2. Formulating public policies, in collaboration with community and government leaders, designed to solve identified local and national health problems and priorities; and
  3. Assuring that all populations have access to appropriate and cost-effective care, including health promotion and disease prevention services, and evaluation of the effectiveness of that care.

The mission of public health, she said, does include mental health. “The smooth integration of the mental health component of health is critical to public health preparedness planning and response.” Flynn followed Degutis’ presentation with two more presentations entitled, “Early Intervention in 2008: Psychological First Aid and Related Models” and “Promoting Resilience and Recovery: Merging Public Health and Behavioral Health Paradigms.”

The afternoon concluded with a panel presentation showcasing practice models of how local health organizations have created relationships with one another and a question and answer session. Panelists included Karen Spartgo, M.P.H., Executive Director of Naugatuck Valley Health District, Laura Mutrie, LCSW, Director of Clinical Services, Lower Naugatuck Valley Parent Child Resource Center, Jeff Montague, M.Div., Health Program Associate at Southeastern Mental Health Authority, and Linda J. Colangelo, Director of Health Education and Communications/Public Information Officer, Northeast District Department of Health.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Yale Center for Public Health Preparedness, the Departments of Public Health, Mental Health and Addiction Services, Children and Families, and the Center for Trauma Response, Recovery and Preparedness.

Submitted by Denise Meyer on August 13, 2012