Don’t Wait-Communicate: Disaster Mental Health Preparation and Response in Rural Schools and Communities

Principal Investigators


The Counselor Education program at East Carolina University, in collaboration with the ECU Rural Education Institute (REI), developed a school-community-university partnership, Don’t Wait-Communicate: Disaster Mental Health Preparation and Response in Rural Schools and Communities (Project Don’t Wait), to address disaster mental health preparation and response.

The purpose of Project Don’t Wait is to establish comprehensive disaster preparedness and response behavioral health programs specific to rural schools and communities. Project Don’t Wait partners with three NC rural school districts in counties that were significantly impacted by recent hurricanes: Jones, Lenoir and Beaufort County. The team provides disaster mental health preparation and response training to rural school personnel, behavioral health professionals, families, first responders, religious groups, community organizations, and other stakeholders who reside in service areas across the southeastern United States that are frequently impacted by natural disasters, such as hurricanes or tornadoes or the aftermath of these events.

The key elements of Project Don’t Wait are:

School-based Mental Health Services: Project Don’t Wait team members provide mental health counseling services to K-12 students who have adverse experiences living in underserved rural areas impacted by natural disasters. The counselors work directly with parents and families to build resource networks to address the idiosyncratic needs of students and families in relation to disasters (e.g., housing needs in circumstances of transiency and displacement, coordination of resources for specialty mental health counseling services if needed, substance use, in-patient, exceptional children services).

Workforce Development Training: The Project Don’t Wait team creates and implements rural-specific, workforce development trainings on disaster mental health preparedness and response for rural schools and community contexts to increase the mental health awareness and literacy of school staff, administrators, parents, and others who interact with school-aged youth. The workforce development trainings aim to educate those involved on the recognition of signs and symptoms of mental illness, socioemotional and behavioral concerns, and academic underperformance in youth, linked to disasters. The target audience for the trainings are rural behavioral health professionals, school personnel, families, first responders, religious groups, and other community stakeholders. Examples of rural disaster mental health awareness trainings are: The Roles of Churches and Religious Groups in Rural Disaster Mental Health; Disaster Survivor 101- Help for the Helper.

Consultation Services: The Project Don’t Wait team provides professional consultation services to school personnel, rural behavioral health professionals, families, first responders, and community stakeholders who have previously experienced disasters in order to build resiliency and promote adaptive coping.

Rural Disaster Mental Health Summit: The Project Don’t Wait team and REI will host a rural disaster mental health summit in 2021 that aims to provide a large-scale professional development training to school personnel across the southeastern United States (e.g., NC, SC, VA, GA, FL)The summit aims to improve the ability of school staff and administrators to identify and address the early indication of traumatic stress and other symptoms related to disasters, and foster collaborative home, school, and rural community resource networks.

Disasters lead people to consider not if, but when one will occur.

Project Goals

  1. Improve the mental health of school-aged youth through increased access to disaster mental health services.
  2. Increase parental/family involvement to address the impact of ACEs.
  3. Increase skills and responsiveness of professionals and community stakeholders to better identify and address the early indication of traumatic stress and other symptoms related to disasters.
  4. Foster collaborative home, school, university, and rural community networks who are prepared to respond to disasters.
  5. Build sustainable programs in rural schools by supporting district partners’ school behavioral health personnel capacity to implement disaster behavioral health treatment programming.

Project Period

April 30, 2020 — October 29, 2021

For More Information

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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)