Dr. Laura Wheat

Coping with Disaster

By Gary Hengstler

Referring to the Gatlinburg fire, people use the term “devastating” from its primary definition: “to lay waste, destroy.”

But for one UT Knoxville expert and her students, the emphasis is on the second definition dealing with emotional stability: “to overwhelm, to stun.”

Dr. Laura Wheat, assistant professor of counselor education, is proud that many of her students in the immediate wake of the fire, offered “to go to counsel those affected.”

She recalls that “we as faculty asked them to take a step back because we were concerned about creating a ‘benevolent moose’ by immediately saying ‘here I am, and I’m here to help you.’ We told them to wait for school counselors to tell us what is needed.” She adds there now is a “line of communication open” with a UT alum school counselor.

She stresses that to help people cope with a disaster, a counselor first has to determine if the patient is in grief or trauma mode.

“Grief and trauma, while related, are not the same thing. People need to recognize that if the person is still in trauma, or crisis mode, you can’t process grief until you are in a state of normalcy. And sometimes you go back and forth.”

Wheat says victims primarily “want to be heard. One of the most magical things about counseling is that most of us have few relationships where we have someone’s undivided attention. A counselor’s job is to listen and help you process things on your own. If you have a person dedicated to just hearing you, that’s pretty healing just by itself.”

Helping little children cope can be tricky, she notes. “With little kids, they have fewer cognitive resources to be able to process. And in the school environment, children learn to give the answer they think the adult wants to hear so the goal is to get them to say what’s really on their mind.”

With teenagers, she says, “what’s happening is they don’t want to stick out. But it may be they are freaking out so they cling more to friends than family. That’s natural; I think sometimes parents misunderstand that impulse to pull away in a time of tragedy. It is helpful for parents and schools to say ‘I know this happened, but your experiences are your experience. I’m here if you need a safe person to talk to.’ Then let them come to you.”