Community Disaster Response Coalition President Dorinda Miller, Ph.D.,
disseminates information about disaster mental health services offered by her
organization at a fair in Blacksburg, Va.
Credit: Kent Miller
When the first shots rang out on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg on
April 16, one phone call to the New River Valley Community Disaster Response
Coalition (CDRC) launched a carefully synchronized plan that would ultimately
extend much-needed support to thousands of people whose lives were affected by
"People have a hard time believing that a disaster will ever affect
them," said Dorinda Miller, Ph.D., in an interview with Psychiatric
Miller, along with several others, created the CDRC in 2002 with funds from
the American Psychiatric Foundation. The goal was to meet the mental health
needs of people affected by disaster in the New River Valley, an area that
encompasses four mountainous counties and includes Blacksburg, Va., home of
When the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history took place in the quiet
college town, Miller, together with an entire community of trained volunteers,
was ready to spring into action.
Miller noted that the genesis of the New River Valley CDRC began with the
9/11 terrorist attacks.
At the time, she was providing mental health relief services at the
Pentagon with the Red Cross and said she realized that there was no way one
agency could hope to meet the disaster mental health needs of an entire
community and that she would need to form partnerships with other agencies in
the New River Valley, where she ran A-Kee Inc., a nonprofit organization
dedicated to providing the community with disaster-relief mental health
services and education.
Her goal was to develop a program that would provide consistent disaster
mental health training to local mental health clinicians and community members
and forge partnerships with local emergency and rescue teams.
Miller worked with colleagues Amy Forsyth-Stephens,M.S.W., and Harvey
Barker, Ph.D., the head of the New River Valley Community Services Center, a
mental health agency, to develop a disaster mental health protocol.
In doing so, she sought guidance from local county emergency coordinators
and the emergency planner for Virginia Tech. She then began recruiting
volunteers to train them to provide disaster mental health services by using a
curriculum she developed.
The daylong training, according to Miller, educates volunteers about
crisis-intervention techniques, good-listening techniques, symptoms indicating
an individual needs to be referred to a mental health clinician in the
community, confidentiality of victims and family members, and ways to take
care of themselves under stressful situations. Trainees also learn about how
disasters affect certain populations, such as children, the elderly, and
people with various types of disabilities.
Training typically takes place three or four times a year and is free,
according to Miller.
Miller's approach, she noted, focuses on resilience and empowerment and is
not meant to probe victims about the trauma they have endured. "We want
to keep people functioning," she noted.
About one-third of the CDRC trainees are licensed and nonlicensed mental
health professionals from the community. Many work with the New River Valley
Community Services Center, which provides mental health services to the
community, including substance abuse workers, emergency service workers, case
managers, and residential support personnel. Two-thirds of CDRC trainees are
laypeople—hairdressers, retired seniors, students, business people,
clergy, and teenagers.
All of the CDRC volunteers take the same course in disaster mental health
because "they are all novices in terms of disaster operations,"
One of the most important aspects of the CDRC is its partnerships with
various community organizations, including the local branch of the Red Cross,
hospitals, hospices, emergency medical technicians, clergy, schools,
fire/rescue squads, and police. "We teach them about what we do and how
they can use us," Miller said.
Prior to the Virginia Tech shootings, volunteers with the CDRC responded
mostly to floods and fires.
The CDRC serves to supplement New River Valley Community Services, which is
designated as the lead agency in disaster mental health, as well as the local
branch of the Red Cross. By the time of the Virginia Tech shootings in April,
the capacities of the CDRC volunteers were ready to be put to the test.
"With the bulk of the shootings over in 45 minutes," noted
Forsyth-Stephens, director of the New River Valley Mental Health Association,"
the situation became a mental health disaster of epic
proportions," she told Psychiatric News. "We are lucky
that Dr. Miller is a member of our community and has been planning for just
this kind of event since 9/11."
Forsyth-Stephens called on 50 mental health professionals working with the
free clinic that operates under the auspices of the mental health association
to supplement the cadre of mental health professionals trained by Miller.
The CDRC supports its disaster-relief activities primarily through
consulting and training across Virginia and the rest of the country. Students
from Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine and staff from several
agencies who had received CDRC training also stepped forward to help.
Miller noted that there were also large numbers of"
spontaneous" volunteers—well-intentioned people from around
the country who showed up wanting to help in some way. "This was both a
blessing and a burden," she noted.
In the hours after the shooting, CDRC, its partner agencies, and Virginia
Tech staff established a staging center at the Virginia Tech Inn, where
families gathered to await news of loved ones.
They also set up a respite center for law-enforcement personnel at the
inn—a quiet space away from the activity where police could listen to
music, contact family members, and get a massage.
During this time, CDRC volunteers worked closely with local clergy and
mental health professionals from the Virginia Tech Cook Counseling Center,
which was inundated with students who were still on campus. CDRC volunteers
worked 24-hour shifts until the family staging area was closed at the end of
In the days that followed, CDRC volunteers were posted at firehouses,
police stations, coffee shops, and other businesses in Blacksburg, according
Miller noted that attendance was nearly perfect when the school reopened."
Students showed up to support one another and their professors,"
While working in conjunction with Virginia Tech's student counseling
center, Miller and her colleagues recruited more than 300 volunteers for
Project Class Reentry a week after the shootings.
Chris Flynn, Ph.D., director of Virginia Tech's Cook Counseling Center,
requested support teams' presence in each class where a student or faculty
member had been injured or killed once classes reconvened. Teams were also
assigned on the Drill Field, Squires Student Center, dining halls, and in
downtown Blacksburg providing support and "compassionate
loitering," Miller noted.
"We had walkie-talkies, vans shuttling between buildings, and a
message center," said Forsyth-Stephens.
When graduation ceremonies began a couple of weeks later, Miller recalled,
CDRC volunteers provided around-the-clock coverage with the families of
injured and deceased students who were housed in a campus dorm.
Stephens said that the tasks performed by dozens of lay volunteers trained
by Miller made it possible for mental health clinicians to reach out to
students and faculty on campus.
"Having such a large group of laypeople who were ready to hit the
ground running enabled us to pull together a massive mental health
response," following the shooting, she noted.
Since graduation, Miller and the CDRC teams have appeared at local fairs
and other community gatherings to disseminate information about the CDRC and
to offer support to people affected by the shooting.
She noted that calls to the New River Valley Community Services Center have
increased by 50 percent since the shooting. Most of the people are calling
with concerns about mental health problems of a loved one, Miller noted.
"I think that right now, we are in a very difficult
phase—people [who have been directly or indirectly impacted by the
shootings] are disillusioned and angry. They realize that life will never be
the same again, and they are exhausted."
It is Miller's hope that the CDRC will provide a model for other
communities in the nation to follow so that they can galvanize local resources
to respond to disasters.
"This is about teaching folks to help each other through rough times.
People want to help, they just need to be prepared and trained before it hits
Information about the New River Valley Community Disaster Response
Coalition is posted at<nrvcdrc.org>.▪