Xavier CEJHS Director asked to prepare mental health modules to help Ukrainian psychologists

By Xavier University of Louisiana

Dr. Cirecie West-Olatunji, Director of Xavier’s Center for Equity Justice and Human Spirit (CEJHS), was asked to create mental health modules to train Ukrainian psychologists. These modules will help psychologists assist Ukraine refugees during the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Dr. West-Olatunji is a professor in Xavier’s counseling education program and the Director and founder of Xavier’s Center for Traumatic Stress Research (CTSR). She has initiated several clinical research projects focusing on culture-centered community collaborations designed to address issues rooted in systemic oppression, such as transgenerational trauma and traumatic stress. Dr. West-Olatunji is aware that the emotional consequences of war and disaster on communities mean that many Ukrainian refugees need mental health healing.  

Dr. West-Olatunji has previously coordinated disaster mental health outreach projects, including post-Katrina New Orleans; South Africa, in response to the HIV-AIDs epidemic; and the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti.  She has also led a People-to-People delegation to India focusing on Disaster Mental Health Counselling and developed a model for culture-centered disaster mental health counseling that she has delivered to mental health professionals in Thailand, India, England, Ireland, China, and Haiti. 

For over three decades, Dr. West-Olatunji has engaged in clinical practice and research related to trauma. She partnered with the Mental Health Academy (MHA) to create the Culture-centered Disaster Mental Health Counselling (C-DMHC) Credentialing Program, the world’s leading online disaster counseling course. The program prepares mental health practitioners to be fully equipped to work in disaster-affected populations. She serves as the course facilitator, providing insight into her online program and has helped thousands of mental health professionals globally.  

C-DMHC teaches best-practice strategies, clinical skills, and cultural insights to effectively serve disaster-affected areas worldwide. The course covers a range of topics to increase knowledge regarding disaster mental health counseling, mental health issues resulting from experiencing disasters, assessment for disaster-affected clients, traumatic stress, working with vulnerable client populations, deployment site arrival, and more to prepare professionals in disaster-affected areas.  

Dr. West-Olatunji developed the credentialing program due to her deployment in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Over the years, she gained experience working with an interdisciplinary team of colleagues, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, and disaster responders, such as law enforcement and military forces. Working with teams helped her acquire many skills and perspectives to develop C-DMHC.  

“I used my disaster mental health counseling model to create C-DMHC as an online training program because disaster mental health is minimally covered in any training programs across mental health disciplines,” said Dr. West-Olatunji.  

When disasters happen, mental health professionals are often called upon to help despite no prior training in how to work in disaster-affected areas. Dr. West-Olatunji knew it was imperative to have disaster mental health training available for professionals to be ready to help others when disaster strikes.  

When the Russia-Ukraine war erupted, MHA was contacted to help train Ukrainian psychologists and mental health providers in assisting over 6 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe. Dr. West-Olatunji was also approached by MHA and clinicians in Europe who asked her what could be done to help Ukrainians.  

Dr. West-Olatunji released portions of her C-DMHC program and expanded on its modules to fit the needs of the Ukrainians and help psychologists interact with refugees. She selected topics from her course she felt would best aid the mental health professionals as they counsel their Ukrainian patients. She will also conduct a live introductory webinar to be translated into Ukrainian.  

“Many Ukrainian psychologists are working in shelters where Ukrainians have relocated to get away from the country’s dangerous hotspots. People are transitioning in and out of the shelter, so one module I thought they should know is how to engage in triage, the urgency of deciding the order of treating large numbers of patients,” shared Dr. West-Olatunji. “Psychologists need to access who are most vulnerable, where needs are the greatest, and how you might respond differently to people based on how each person is functioning.” 

Along with assessment and triage, another module she knew would benefit psychologists is operating amidst chaos.  

“I included a unit on working in the trenches that has direct interventions of what mental health professionals need to do, or what items someone would take with them to be able to work with individuals who are affected by war,” stated Dr. West-Olatunji.  

As mental health professionals typically work with clients in one-on-one settings, Dr. West-Olatunji also felt it was necessary to include modules discussing teamwork. Working as an interdisciplinary team to provide disaster mental health services is essential as mental health professionals work alongside other professionals and responders in disaster environments.  

Another module discusses preparation and how to function on the go and emphasizes the importance of on-hand resources, such as backpacks, which allow people to carry multiuse and lightweight necessities. She also discusses being adaptable to surroundings as there may not always be available water or restrooms, and weather conditions can vary from hot to cluttered with debris.  

The most important module Dr. West-Olatunji included for the psychologists was compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is the physical, emotional, and psychological impact a person feels from helping others.  

“One of the hazards of working with people who experience trauma is secondary trauma—we can mirror trauma symptoms of those we serve. We can’t help anyone if we ourselves are experiencing this,” she said. “We’re human, so it’s very difficult to work with trauma-affected clients throughout the day without being personally impacted in some way, which compromises our ability to be helpful. We also have our own lived experiences and exposure to trauma in our lives. In this module, I talk about how to stay sane, healthy, and whole so that we, as mental health professionals, can continue to provide services day after day.” 

Dr. West-Olatunji expresses that mental health modules will be impactful and beneficial to Ukraine psychologists and the Ukraine community. After watching videos of people on the ground working in Ukraine, it was evident mental health disaster training was needed. 

“The model I’ve developed is from the ground up in which we as professionals take on a different kind of role and help people themselves begin to develop the necessary skills,” said Dr. West-Olatunji. “We’re ravished by hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, war, and a pandemic all at the same time. We need to teach people what they need to do to be able to respond, and we need a new model, and that’s what I’ve proposed.”  

Two Ukrainian Xavier faculty members, Dr. Galina Goloverda and Dr. Vladimir Kolesnichenko, emphasized the importance of supporting the people of Ukraine in this time of turmoil and devastation. 

“As Xavier faculty, whose mission is promoting the creation of a just and humane society through education, we feel that supporting Ukraine at these difficult times is vital as Ukraine is at the front line for defending not only its land but also the best moral values of the democratic world,” Dr. Goloverda and Dr. Kolesnichenko stated. “Unfortunately, each day of this war is another hundred(s) of dead defenders, killed, raped and tortured civilians and broken lives. This is why it is very important now to emphasize the mental and physical health of Ukrainians. We are very proud of our country for leading the world in helping Ukraine in many different ways, and we know that Ukrainian people appreciate this help deeply.”