University offers mental support and comfort to students

Kelly Gulbrandson

The Interstate 35W bridge collapse put many people in danger and prompted questions that will take a long time to answer.

Why did this happen? Why did some survive while others died?

The University sprang into action to help people answer these questions and to comfort victims, rescue personnel or anyone who needed to talk.

Tai Mendenhall, assistant professor in the department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University’s Medical School, was a first responder on the scene as director of the University’s Medical Reserve Corps and is trained to handle local, national and international disasters.

When he heard of the bridge collapse, he said he quickly drove to his office to put together an emergency response team.

Mendenhall went to University of Minnesota Medical Center-Fairview to help calm disaster victims and their family members.

“It was complete chaos,” he said. “People were crying everywhere.”

Mendenhall said he stayed at the hospital from 8 p.m. Wednesday until 4 a.m. Thursday and has since worked at the Red Cross’ Family Assistance Center. He is also working on shifting teams with the Red Cross and Minneapolis Police to be on call to help counsel rescue workers and other first responders when needed.

Mendenhall said while the majority of his time Wednesday night was spent counseling family members and victims, he also counseled doctors at Fairview.

u of m counseling

The University offers services for those who need mental counseling in dealing with this tragedy.

Crisis Connection: 612-379-6363
University counseling and consulting services: 612-624-3323
Boynton Health Service: 612-625-8475

To learn how to help out, call
American Red Cross: 612-871-7676

To find missing family members, call, 651-201-7478

For other numbers and information, go to: http://www.mentalhealth.umn.edu/ crisis/index.html

The doctors were overwhelmed and burning out quickly because all the rooms were filling up with patients, he said. When people reconnected with their family members, they were sometimes traumatized if they saw the family member was badly injured or needed surgery, Mendenhall said.

People who still have missing family members have a more difficult grieving process since there is no clear way to say goodbye to them without a body, he said.

“These people are in a state of frozen grief,” Mendenhall said.

People believe that as long as they have hope, their loved one could still be alive. And when they give up that hope, the loved one dies, he said.

After such an event, a community comes together and people realize the preciousness of their relationships because you never know what could happen, Mendenhall said.

“Everything and everyone you love could be gone in a second,” he said.

Any University student who feels the need to talk to someone about their feelings has a number of options. University Counseling and Consulting Services offers walk-in appointments for all students.

Glenn Hirsch, interim director of UCCS, said even though the office has not seen anyone for counseling directly because of the disaster, students have been talking about it in their existing appointments.

“It is not surprising because often it takes weeks and months to start feeling upset and realize they might need someone to talk to,” he said.

While it is normal to feel depressed and anxious when a tragic event first happens, if it gets in the way of students’ normal activities, it could be a sign they need to talk to someone, he said.

If students are having trouble concentrating on homework or enjoying time with friends and family, it might be time to talk to someone about what they are feeling, Hirsch said.

This disaster is similar to the Sept. 11 attacks because it took two to four weeks for students to come in for counseling, even though they believed they were fine shortly after, he said.

“When students first deal with this type of event, they first concentrate on connecting with friends and family before realizing what has happened,” Hirsch said.

If students are not comfortable coming into UCCS to talk, they can look on the department’s Web site for tips on how to deal with their feelings and how to find out if what they are feeling is abnormal. A student can call the crisis connection number, independent of UCCS, to talk to a mental health professional on the phone.

A student can also talk to a clergy member they trust or talk to a mental health professional at Boynton Health Service.

Candice Price, clinical social worker in the Mental Health Clinic at Boynton, said a disaster like this has never happened here before.

“Professionals here offered individual counseling right after the collapse and now are offering crisis counseling for those who need it,” she said.

Students might experience delayed reactions to the scene or develop general fears about safety, and it could take weeks or months to trigger these emotions, Price said.

While the services available to students at Boynton are similar to those offered at UCCS, the professionals at Boynton have the ability to prescribe medications to students if they believe it is necessary, she said.

“(The University community) has all been impacted by this event,” she said.