PREPARING FOR TRAGEDY: The Importance of Knowing What Helps When Disaster Strikes


Everyday, students, parents and school staff are affected by the increase in school shootings, bomb threats, student suicides and other disasters in local communities.  Schools are increasingly being asked to make difficult decisions about how to manage actual or possible threats on and around their campuses. While threats are increasing, not enough school professionals or community mental health providers have actual training in how to assess and manage major threats or actual tragedies. The need for professionals trained in disaster mental health, threat assessment and critical incident debriefing is highly needed.

On November 8th, 2018, my professional and personal worlds collided as the deadly shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill happened, threats of violence to 6 local school campuses (including one where my son attended) occurred, and two massive wildfires, including the Woolsey fire, which eventually became one of the largest and destructive fires ever in Southern California, broke out within a five mile radius of my home and workplace. The even more destructive Camp Fire was also just gaining momentum in the northern part of our state. While we were evacuated from our own home for 4 days, my family escaped any immediate damage from the events. However, the local communities in our area were deeply impacted by two of the worst tragedies this area had ever experienced…all within a 24 hour period.


As a mental health provider trained in disaster mental health and threat assessment, the next several weeks were filled with opportunities to assist local businesses, places of worship, local schools and universities and other community groups process and begin the grieving/ healing process. People everywhere were on high alert.  Bringing a “crisis compass” to these communities was critical, as I was able to give people a roadmap to understanding how traumatic events play out differently for every person, and to also help groups find common ground on how to begin to normalize the many feelings, thoughts and behavioral responses they were all having.  It also provided opportunities to guide the work of other professionals who were looking to help, yet didn’t have as much experience working in a tragedy zone.

During the week following the shootings and fires, my wife, Dr. Susan Hall, and I were given the opportunity to write an article on disaster mental health for the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapist’s magazine, The Therapist.  In this piece we detailed the importance of:

  • Understanding the differences between disaster mental health and traditional psychotherapy
  • Knowing the phases of a disaster and helpful responses to survivors within these phases
  • Offering up concrete skills to help all individuals cope better, especially those showing signs of Acute Stress Disorder
  • Professional self-care when providing services in a disaster area
  • Knowing where professionals can find quality training to become better equipped to help in disaster situations.

This article can be seen in full by clicking here.

There is no time better than the present to make sure the schools, businesses and organizations you are a part of are prepared for the possibility for a significant crisis or larger scale disaster/ tragedy. One of the most gratifying parts of my work is helping a team develop a solid plan of action well before it’s ever needed. These teams feel more confident and are much better equipped to help both the communities they serve, while also maintaining the professional well-being to persevere through challenging situations.

Robert Scholz, M.A. is dually licensed in California as a Marriage and Family Therapist and Professional Clinical Counselor. Robert has served in many leadership roles over his twenty plus years in the field. Recently, he has started a new company offering psychotherapy and training/consultation services to mental health companies, educational institutions, and community organizations. Robert spent a decade of his career at Pepperdine University’s Counseling Center as the Assistant Director and Alcohol and Other Drug Program Coordinator and teaching in Pepperdine’s graduate psychology program. Robert regularly provides consultation and training to organizations and at national conferences across many topic areas, including resiliency building in psychotherapy, crisis intervention/postvention, effective responses to traumatic events, feedback-informed treatment (FIT), threat assessment/management and motivational interviewing. He has also co-authored several publications on the topics of disaster mental health, motivational interviewing, counseling men, forensic mental health and systemic responses to sexual violence.