New online certificate in disaster counseling addresses shortage in field

Imagine 5,000 families, left homeless by the forces of nature, living in tents crammed in an area the size of a football field. Imagine their struggles and feelings of helplessness […]

Imagine 5,000 families, left homeless by the forces of nature, living in tents crammed in an area the size of a football field. Imagine their struggles and feelings of helplessness that come from the lack of basic necessities like food, water, clothing or even a bathroom. Since the catastrophic Haiti earthquake in 2010, thousands of Haitians still live in these post-earthquake “tent cities” and face overwhelming physical and psychological hurdles daily.


Now, imagine having the skills and resources to help improve the lives of such injured and traumatized victims in disaster-affected areas. After visiting Haiti and other disaster sites, Cirecie West-Olatunji, associate professor of counselor education at the University of Florida, is using her experience in disaster counseling to better prepare mental health professionals for work in the fledgling field.

West-Olatunji has designed a new online certificate program in disaster counseling for licensed mental health professionals and state-certified school counselors drawn to the field of disaster counseling. She said the 12-hour graduate program, due to start classes next spring, is one of three such programs in the country, and the only one housed in a college of education.

“Counselor educators have a perspective that lends itself very well to disaster counseling,” West-Olatunji said. “I hope the certificate program revolutionizes a cadre of people in the counseling profession going out in response to major disasters.”

She said the new course will explore how to enhance sensitivity and competence when providing disaster-response counseling in other cultures.

The online program, nationally accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), features courses in disaster mental health counseling, multicultural issues in disaster counseling, post-traumatic stress disorder, counseling vulnerable populations and a capstone-experience course.

West-Olatunji said the demand for disaster counseling is increasing because of the frequency of natural disasters happening lately. She said disaster counseling currently is not covered extensively in counselor education programs.

“What’s new is that catastrophic disasters have been on the rise and we’re finding we’re not adequately training mental health students to respond,” West-Olatunji said.

West-Olatunji said her first outreach trip to New Orleans after the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005 opened her eyes to the need for disaster counseling. She is developing a training model that can be used in places like New Orleans, Port Au Prince, Haiti, and Japan.

“The overwhelming majority of countries don’t have qualified counseling professionals, so when disasters occur, they need a rapid response,” West-Olatunji said. “The Red Cross can only bring so many people and can only stay so long.”

In Haiti, West-Olatunji and other counselors went to churches and other community groups to counsel people and gauge their needs. The team gave presentations on sexual abuse, which is a large problem in the tent cities due to the lack of security.

She is traveling to Latin America for another outreach trip next year.  She previously led national disaster, mental-health outreach teams on consulting and counselor-training trips to New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and has twice organized national teams of counseling students, faculty and practitioners to travel to South Africa and Botswana for “community-based counseling” of HIV and AIDS-infected individuals.

For more information about the online disaster-counseling certificate program, visit the program website or inquire via email.

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SOURCE: Cerecie West-Olatunji, associate professor in counselor education and mental health counseling track coordinator, UF College of Education; 352-273-4324;

MEDIA CONTACT: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education; 352-273-4137;

WRITER: Jessica Bradley, communications intern, news and communications, UF College of Education