Psychology student researchers key contributors to state pandemic project

Written by Karen L. Bystrom
February 18, 2021

When Dr. Kira Mauseth, Senior Instructor, Psychology, and her colleague, Dr. Tona McGuire, responded to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, they had no idea that it would launch behavioral health training which would, in turn, prepare them to lead the State of Washington’s Behavioral Health Strike Team through a pandemic 10 years later. Dr. Mauseth had no idea that it would also offer opportunities for Seattle U Psychology students to immerse themselves in critical, real-time research in response to a global natural disaster.

Students and Dr. Mauseth“We were deployed with a group to Haiti,” says Dr. Mauseth. “A nonprofit invited us to come to their school on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince and set up an emergency clinic to respond to the overwhelming need. Sitting on the plane on the way home afterward, we agreed that we needed to leave something more tangible behind.

“We realized that there is little about the nature of direct service in disaster behavioral health that specifically requires a PhD or a license. We thought, ‘we can teach high school students who no longer have schools. We can teach college student who want to help their communities. We can teach community leaders how to support people from an evidence-based, psychosocial perspective.’”

Drs. Mauseth and McGuire responded by creating a curriculum called Health Support Team and returned to Haiti to provide training to more than 400 people. They also trained trainers, creating culturally-adaptive, culturally-appropriate training; the Haitians then communicated the skills and the techniques in a way that is appropriate in their culture, rather than from a Western viewpoint. They then took the curriculum to Jordan with Syrian refugees. They continued local training through the Disaster Clinical Advisory Committee, and Northwest Health Care Response Network, engaging first responders, doctors, nurses, interested community members, anyone with an interest in disaster response.

When the State Department of Health began designing the Behavioral Health Strike Team as one of rapid response deployment teams for emergencies in the state, Dr. Mauseth and her partner were poised to accept their positions as co-leads. “Whether the emergency is a school shooting or a flood or a landslide, strike teams move in in and support the community,” explains Dr. Mauseth. “They offer training, resources – whatever what is needed – to bolster local efforts typically from anywhere from one to two weeks.”

They outlined the Behavioral Health Strike Team organization and structure in the summer of 2019 as part of the larger Behavioral Health Group at the DOH. In January 2020, just as the team felt they had found their footing, COVID-19 appeared on their radar. Dr. Mauseth remembers, “We really started paying attention, realizing this is going to be a lot bigger than most people think it is. At Seattle U, by March, even before the initial shutdown order, I was already talking to colleagues in the Psychology Department and making plans with students to move online.”

From the beginning, the Behavioral Health Strike Team made it a priority to position the pandemic as a natural disaster. “It isn’t what many think of as a typical natural disaster,” says Dr. Mauseth. “I emphasized that in our educational materials, making it the opening of all of our guidance documents. It is an important distinction when we talk about the behavioral health impact.”

Student Research in Action

The team worked to craft the specific response advocacy plan for Washington providers, hospitals, and health systems to prepare for what residents are likely to experience. They created presentations, trainings, and written guidance materials, creating a forecast of emerging needs and issues as the pandemic approached.

Developing all of that critical content offered an unexpected opportunity for Seattle U’s psychology students. Dr. Mauseth says, “We had a wealth of information that we needed to organize and share but our team members didn’t have the capacity to sit down and focus on the literature review and background library searches to find the latest data.”

As the university faculty member on the team and a previous practicum supervisor, Dr. Mauseth realized the potential for students. “During the pandemic there are fewer options for students to get practical, real world experience.” She took the idea to Department Chair Dr. Kathleen Cook. Dr. Cook was immediately on board; “SU students are perfect for this work! They are all well trained to work with the extant literature, synthesize information, and critically assess the quality of research.” They solicited student resumes, interviewed them, and chose a team of student researchers. Team members include Breanne Coulthard, Chemistry and Honors; Joanna Corpuz, Psychology ’22; Isabel Gilbertson, Psychology, Public Affairs, and Honors,  ’22; Sydney Lindell, Psychology ’21; Kes Sorensen, Psychology ’21; and An Than, Psychology, Criminal Justice, and Honors ’23.

“They have provided exactly the support I hoped for,” Dr. Mauseth says. “They are advancing the guidance documents and reports we are putting out by being on the ground, doing their research. And they are matching the pace; disaster response is inherently very fast and not anything like the usual academic or research cycle.”

“I am really proud of the behavioral health component of disaster response that our state as put together. These students and their contributions have been an integral part of that.”

Behavioral Health in the (Virtual) Classroom

Dr. Mauseth is highly aware of the impact this natural disaster has on her students. “I struggle with a lot of the common responses we have to disasters. I don’t remember things, I don’t track things as well. I know these are normal reactions and that my students are experiencing them, too.”

At the beginning of Fall and Winter quarters, she started the first days of class with the acknowledgement that students are in the middle of a disaster, how it affects people mentally and emotionally, and what one can reasonably expect. “I let them know that it’s normal to feel they have cognitive issues. I let them know that while I expect effort and performance, with a disaster environment that so strongly impacts people’s ability to perform, we will make adjustments and be flexible. I emphasize messages of resilience, that we will get through this.”

Looking forward from this vantage point, Dr. Mauseth sees potential for her own research into resilience. “The Seattle U education seems to be prepping students to be not just responsive, but also adaptive. The ingredients for resilience are purpose, connection, adaptability and flexibility, and hope. I suspect, given my experience this year, if we can look at adaptability and flexibility specifically, I think resilience is going to predict successful outcomes in the workplace environment and for students more than anything else than we've ever measured before.”

Photo: top row, l. to r.  Isabel Gilbertson and Dr. Kira Mauseth; middle row, l. to r. An Than and Joanna Corpuz; bottom row, l. to r. Kes Sorensen and Syndey Lindell. Not pictured Breanne Coulthard