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Underestimating the Psychological Impact of the Swine Flu in Our Schools and Universities

Posted Sep 04 2009 10:40am
According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population attends or works in schools. While there have been recommendations concerning how we can prevent the spread of the flu, the psychological impact has not been addressed.

How will people respond when a student or staff member is hospitalized as a result of a flu-related condition? Will classes continue? Or is there a strong likelihood that anxiety and avoidance behavior will seriously compromise the educational process, causing people to stay at home?

With our rapidly increasing technology have come powerful mechanisms of communication. We are now able to share information with each other, and with countless others, with the push of button or a touch-screen. In all likelihood, information, both accurate and inaccurate, will spread among school and university communities like the horrific fires in Southern California.

What can we do? How can we address the psychological impact of the Swine Flu?

Be prepared. Be responsive.

This philosophy will present a challenge for many schools that are reactive in nature ... dealing with problems when they rear their heads. However, the potential impact of the Swine Flu cannot be ignored. In the same way that instant communication could paralyze a school or university family, keeping both students and staff out of the classroom, communication can also be the powerful mechanism to prepare and empower us to respond effectively in the face of a flu outbreak.

Following, are three recommendations:

1) At this time, educators must inform members of the school and university community that discussions are underway and that plans are being developed to both prevent and address the potential of a Swine Flu outbreak.

2) In the event of an outbreak, educators must utilize different mechanisms of communication to rapidly inform the school or university community what actions are being taken to address specific situations. It is critical that potentially disabling rumors are extinguished and that appropriate, approved and corroborated factual information be shared.

3) Once an outbreak has adversely impacted the educational family and students/staff are either unable or unwilling to attend, schools and universities should utilize different mechanisms of communication (e.g., text messaging, email, social networking, webcams, websites, etc.) to maintain the educational process. Assignments and, in some cases, curriculum can be shared via the internet. Practical information, concerning such areas as emotional, social and behavioral reactions can also be shared.

It is not a matter of if, but when we will face a significant crisis situation, such as a Swine Flu outbreak, that will seriously impact the educational process. We must abandon a reactive philosophy and instead, adopt a timely, proactive philosophy of being prepared and being responsive.


Dr. Mark Lerneris President of the Institute for Traumatic Stress. Dr. Lerner regularly trains schools, universities and corporations to respond effectively before, during and in the wake of a crisis.
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