James Halpern went to Newtown, Connecticut the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. He went for one week, as a volunteer with the Mid-Hudson Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, to provide counseling to immediate family members of the victims, as well as to community members. The Red Cross counseling is short-term, and those who needed more assistance were referred to community resources.
James Halpern has been with the American Red Cross since 1999 and, he points out, disaster mental health really did not come become full-fledged until the 1990s. Halpern’s work with the Red Cross is in addition to, and sometimes part of, his work at the State University of New York at New Paltz’s Institute of Disaster Mental Health, where he is the director. Halpern provides disaster grief counseling around the world. In the U.S., he provided assistance after the 2007 Nor’easter; the Pennsylvania floods of 2004; and, after 9/11. When asked what was different about counseling right after the Newtown tragedy, he says:
Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who continues to recover from having been shot in the head during a mass shooting in her state two years ago, visited Newtown Friday, with her husband. She met with Connecticut officials, and with victims’ family members. Halpern says, given what he witnessed when President Obama came to Newtown, Giffords’ visit was probably helpful.
Many people still want to help. Newtown has no shortage of teddy bears or baked goods, yet Halpern has an idea of how best to help, and it’s staying local.
James Halpern is a psychology professor at SUNY New Paltz, and the director of the Institute of Disaster Mental Health.