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A conversation with: Brian Houston

MU Terrorism and Disaster Center co-director studies disasters and terrorism effects

Bobby Watson

Brian Houston’s research team focuses on child, family and community mental health effects related to disasters.

January 31, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Brian Houston knows disaster can strike any time. As the co-director of the new MU Terrorism and Disaster Center, he researches both short-term and long-term effects on victims of natural disasters or terrorism attacks. But Houston, an assistant professor in the department of communication, is taking his scholarship much further with a $2.4 million grant for disaster and terrorism research over the next four years. Houston says Missouri should be prepared for anything.

What drew you toward terrorism and disaster communication?

My Ph.D. is in communication, and as I was finishing up, I started working with a group of psychiatrists and psychologists at the University of Oklahoma. One of the things they were interested in is how media coverage of disasters affected kids and families, how it made these kids and families have more anxiety and depression or worry about disasters; I started working with them on these issues.

I came to MU in 2010 and was able to get funding to continue this kind of work. It’s really an amalgam of interest in disaster mental health, the mass media and its effects and also disaster communication.

What kinds of problems do you see in media coverage of disasters?

For people experiencing disasters directly, we sometimes see people have reactions like depression or anxiety, and in the worst-case scenario, we see post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can be problematic for people. It can affect their functioning and can be associated with increased substance abuse. It can be a tough disorder for people and can require actual treatment. That’s what we see in kids and adults who experience disasters directly. We sometimes also see slivers of these reactions from people who don’t experience disasters directly but are exposed to it via the media. This was prevalent in the 9/11 attacks. Those who watched more TV coverage of the attacks and read more articles about them were more likely to experience more post-traumatic stress symptoms. It’s not as severe, and I don’t know that you get the full effect of those impacted directly. Ultimately, there’s more for us to figure out here.

What’s the goal of the MU Terrorism and Disaster Center?

The intent of the center is to have a national impact on what we know, what we do, what services there are and what policies there are. Because we are located at MU, the center will also have a clear focus on things going on in the state of Missouri. The past two years we’ve had a variety of significant disasters in the state. Hopefully, TDC can help bring people working on disasters in the state of Missouri together in some way.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on?

Both the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. Those were such massive catastrophic events, and I feel the field has learned a lot from both. Working in the aftermath of Katrina, for me, has been most interesting because you have so many people who not only had their house destroyed or loved ones killed, but you have people displaced outside of the city and the state. Studying how people cope with that and what could have been done to prevent those things from happening was an amazing situation.

Why is it important Columbia has a place like this?

Columbia feels like it’s safe or immune from disasters. But there is no place that’s completely protected. I think it’s good to be proactive or prepared and think about these things before they happen. When I was in Oklahoma, it’s a place that is continually ravaged by disasters. People there are very aware of these threats. It’s not really like that in Missouri yet, but in the past couple of years, I think maybe we are starting to think differently. Like the New Madrid earthquake fault that runs through portions of the state, they tell us we’re overdue for an earthquake there. The last couple of years have illustrated that we’re not immune. As the climate changes, maybe things are more dangerous here than they were 50 or 100 years ago.

Were there any negative outcomes of receiving the grant?

I don't think of it like that. But it is a huge responsibility. These are taxpayer dollars that have been entrusted in us to use in order to achieve some public good, to do things that have value for people's lives. It is humbling to be awarded this amount of money, and it's a great responsibility. None of that is negative, and I don't see it as a downside, but it is somewhat sobering. It was so difficult to get the grant and write the application and the years of work that led up to it. Once you get the grant, the work really begins. Now is the time to do the work.

What sets your team apart from others working in a field such as this?

We have a good track record of working in this area. The collaborators working on the grant, some of the ones from the University of Oklahoma, are still part of it. It's our track record in the area; the collaborations we can list really help. I think the multidisciplinary nature of our proposal helps. I'm in communication, and there are some mental health people in there as well. It really shows a multidisciplinary approach to a problem of how disasters can negatively impact people. With the strength of our applications, that helped us get it. This is one of those ares you can't approach the problem from one side alone. You have to have variety of perspectives and disciplines at the table.

What was your involvement during the Joplin tornado?

We're working with Joplin and with the Ozark Center to think about what are the long-term disaster recovery needs. There was a big response to the Joplin tornado, and there are and were mental health services available, but this spring, we'll be approaching two years since the tornado. The question is what are the ongoing needs? Most of us have forgotten, but for the people living in Joplin who lost their house or lost a loved one, we're working with the Ozark Center to figure out what those needs are and how to address them. We don't know much about the long-term effects on people. We're good about figuring out the short-term needs and effects, but we need to work more on long-term issues. Also, we have some partners who are doing work following superstorm Sandy on the East Coast. We'll be involved with agencies responding there. It isn't just Missouri disasters—it's disasters across the U.S. That's one of the challenges. We don't know what we will be working on two years in the future because we don't know what will happen in the next two years. Things can change dramatically.

Tell us more about the grant you received.

The funding is from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). It's funding to establish the Terrorism and Disaster Center here at MU. Basically, what the TDC will focus on are the child, family and community mental health effects related to disasters. We're interested in things like ways to help children, families and communities recover from a disaster, respond to a disaster and cope with challenges but also to become more prepared ahead of time and be more resilient all around. That's the overall, broad purpose of funding and for the center at this point.

What steps did you have to take to get the grant?

SAMHSA, the funding agency, had requests for the proposal. They have funding available through this entity called the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. They've funded dozen of centers throughout the U.S. focusing on trauma. We put together an application—myself, some other people we've worked with in the field—and we have some partners across the state of Missouri. There's a group in Joplin, the Ozark Center, that's providing disaster mental health services after the tornado of 2011. There's one in Kansas City we work with. The application was myself and other partners at the University of Oklahoma and a lot of community partners. We proposed what we wanted to do in four years.

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