Alumni Spotlight: A Conversation with a Disaster Mental Health Specialist

Apr 12, 2017 by Vance Chung and Dr. Nancy R. F. Miller

CalSouthern first had the opportunity meet one of our outstanding graduates at our annual Commencement in 2015. We recently talked with Dr. Miller about her amazing background, and travels to South West Uganda as a disaster mental health specialist.


Could you tell us a little bit about your background before you joined CalSouthern? What motivated you to enroll back in school?

I began my psychology studies in undergraduate college where I met my husband (Merton W. Miller) senior year.  After graduation, I went on to graduate school to study clinical psychology while Mert was commissioned into the United States Air Force.  We soon married and began our lives together as a young military family. Frequent relocations abroad and in the United States brought us new opportunities and experiences strengthening our resilience as individuals and as a family unit.  Being a military spouse I had the opportunity to practice psychology in many different environments and work capacities developing my ability to learn and adapt quickly.

Achieving my Doctorate in Psychology had been a goal throughout my 30 year career. I obtained multiple lateral licenses but wasn’t quite satisfied. I knew I wanted to reach the highest terminal degree in my field. Even though life’s circumstances such as frequent relocations (15) while raising three children and balancing financial constraints impeded opportunities to further my education, I never lost the desire.   

Finally, enrolled in the PsyD program at CalSouthern I thrived as an independent Learner. The 8 week course structure was organized and supported the Learner’s success. The faculty and staff were responsive and assisted as needed.  CalSouthern offered different opportunities for interactive learning throughout the program.

Nancy-Miller-CalSouthern Alumni


Could you tell us about your work as a Disaster Mental Health specialist?

As a Disaster Mental Health Specialist I have provided different services depending on the timing one arrives at the humanitarian crisis and the goals of the particular assignment. Each disaster is unique and has its own time line for relief and recovery efforts.

Nancy-SideIn an acute crisis situation the Disaster Mental Health worker may provide rapid assessments and immediate relief efforts delivering “Psychological First Aid,” i.e., grief and trauma support to victims and survivors. On the other hand, arriving after relief efforts have transitioned to the recovery phase (early, middle, and long-term), when systems are in place so people can begin to function and resume their lives again, the role and services of the Mental Health worker may involve further assessments and planning, consultations, trainings, and direct care services. Direct care services can be ongoing grief and trauma work, psychoeducation, and referrals to other specialties and support services.

By way of illustration, when I responded to the Orlando, Pulse nightclub shooting (June, 12, 2016; a national man-made disaster) after the acute relief efforts, transitioning into the early recovery phase, I provided grief support to survivors and family members, and debriefings for other Mental Health responders and staff workers coordinated by a local mental health agency.

In comparison, my trip to South West (SW) Uganda (July –August 2016) Nakivlae & Oruchinga Refugee Settlements was a response to an international humanitarian crisis in its long-term recovery phase. My role was to provide mental health needs assessments, patient consultations, supervision, and training to general medical staff at primary health care centers for Medical Teams International (MTI) under the technical direction of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Necessarily, my response to each humanitarian crisis was quite different.

In July-August 2016, you went to SW Uganda to the Nakvale & Oruchinga Refugee Settlements. Could you tell us about your trip and the work you did there?

Uganda has a generous asylum policy, and asylum-seekers arriving to the border regions have access to existing public services and facilities (e.g. water, sanitation, health care, education), and natural resources shared with the local community (UNHCR, 2014). The government of Uganda allocates land for refugee settlements to use for housing, farming and are allowed to travel freely within, thereby reducing the refugee’s dependency on food and other assistance, even though they are unable to obtain legal residency status in Uganda (Government of Uganda & UNHCR, 1999).

I arrived in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. MTI’s Country Office is located in Kampala, where I met with MTI and UNHCR administrators and received briefings on MTIs role, the country of Uganda, its culture, safety concerns, and the scope of my assignment.

MTI’s driver and I traveled daily to the settlements where I connected with MTI’s Psychiatric Nurse Officer (PNO). MTI provided me with interpreters when I conversed with refugees from different African countries. I conducted focus groups and individual interviews, patient consultations, clinical supervision, and trainings to general medical staff and other agencies over a 4-week period.

The goal of the study was to inform MTI of the mental health gaps, existing services, and recommendations for the planning of a potential integrated Mental Health program expansion in the refugee settlements. Developing a sustainable mental health care system would contribute to the development and resilience of individuals, communities, and the country of Uganda (WHO, 2013).

How did your professional and educational background in mental health help on this trip?

Having my PsyD opened new opportunities with MTI and UNHCR. Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) require Disaster Mental Health and Medical providers to be licensed in their professional field. My Professional Counselor and Marriage & Family License further qualified me for this assignment.

Previous Disaster Mental Health training: Red Cross, FEMA, MTI (Safety Awareness Training), and J.T. Mitchell’s Critical Incident Stress Management program (CISM) have all prepared me for this experience.

International travel and living abroad increases one’s openness to different cultures and experiences, while strengthening one’s resilience, adaptability, and communication skills.

My past Disaster Mental Health work and research afforded me opportunities and the knowledge required to meet the objectives of this study. 


What have you learned from this trip?

The human spirit is resilient. The will to survive is so powerful and can overcome adversity and trauma.

I witnessed people who had so little in terms of material possessions yet celebrated life through dance, songs, and spirituality.

My work is a calling, it's my passion. I have had the opportunity to gain skills and a higher education so my desire is to use these skills to assist those less fortunate.

The needs of so many people were over whelming; there was limited time and resources to help everyone. I would compartmentalize and focus on the case presented, asking myself "How can I help this person/family?" believing even if I helped relieve the suffering of just one person, then I served my purpose.

Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, I found offering compassion, through a smile, gentle touch, listening, or the nodding of a head were universal communications which conveyed genuineness and respect to all. 

What would you like to share with your fellow CalSouthern learners and alumni?

Disaster MH work is exciting, challenging, and rewarding. If you are thinking about getting involved there are many opportunities to do so. Keep in mind, the Disaster MH worker needs to be a team player, flexible, and assimilate and adapt to differences in order to function in complex disasters. I believe I have gained more from working with the marginalized population than I have given them.  As William Arthur Ward once said, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it!”





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