Jamie Aten is an expert on disaster. The executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton (IL) College, Aten has spent much of his adult life studying the psychology of disaster, particularly how it affects people and communities, and how others can respond helpfully.

He’s been to ground zero after multiple disasters—hurricanes, floods, refugee camps, you name it. He’s interviewed hundreds of people, written articles and papers on the topic, and taught courses and seminars about it.

So when he was hammered by a personal disaster—Stage IV colon cancer—in 2013 at the age of 35, with a wife and three young children, he was in some ways well equipped for the bad news. His oncologist, knowing Aten’s background and profession, told him that he was now facing his own “personal disaster.”

It was a phrase that Aten (shown above, at right) could wrap his head around, if not his heart. Intellectually, he knew effective ways to deal with it. Emotionally, though, it was still a scary time.

But thanks to surgery and treatment, Aten, 41, has now been cancer-free going on five years.

Aten recently released a personal memoir appropriately titled, A Walking Disaster (Templeton Press), in which he discusses his own journey through cancer and as a survivor of another disaster—Hurricane Katrina.

ORBITER wanted to know more about his book and his work, particularly the science and psychology of dealing with disaster. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

ORBITER: How do you define a humanitarian disaster?

Jamie Aten: Any kind of major crisis that really overwhelms a community’s capacity to respond to an event. At our Institute, we work on everything from natural disasters—like hurricanes and tornadoes—to mass violence and mass traumas, like a shooting situation. We also do international conflict research—for instance, on civil wars and internal conflict in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the impact on people’s health and wellness and faith. One colleague just got back from Haiti, and another is now going to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where we’ve been working for about seven years.

What’s your research look like in a disaster zone? You’d want to be sensitive to the survivors.

Yes. I’ve seen situations where people sort of parachute in, grab the data, and leave. But at the Institute, we don’t do research just for research’s sake, but research that empowers the community. Whenever we go into a community, it’s typically because the community has invited us. We work closely with gatekeepers and leaders on the ground before we ever arrive.

Case in point: The 2016 flood in Baton Rouge. We were invited to do some research and training. Before we arrived, we had already spent days on the phone with organizations that were responding; they knew who we were before we got there. And then we shared some of our initial analyses before we left Louisiana, leaving community stakeholders with a better pulse of what was happening on the ground. While we were there, we’d hear from the survivors, and we’d work on developing tools to share with the community.

We try to show how our research adds value—that we’re not just taking, but also giving right back into the community.

Are you actually interviewing survivors, or talking to first responders and others?

Most of the time we’re doing first-hand accounts, working with survivors. Sometimes that’s going door-to-door in a community. Sometimes that’s through events where we’re reaching out to collect data. But we also study first responders—for example, we published a study looking at the impact of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines on humanitarian aid workers there.

There’s a lot in the news lately about building a wall on our southern border while refugees try to seek asylum in the U.S. Is that situation considered a humanitarian disaster?

Absolutely. It’s one of the biggest crises facing us right now, and we’re very active in that situation. When we first started doing our work, it was largely looking at natural disasters. But over time, our eyes have been opened to new connected stressors and problems in society. Through doing disaster work internationally, we became aware of the refugee crisis several years before the issues now dominating the news in the U.S. We partner with a number of resettlement organizations here in the U.S., where we’re doing research.

My colleague Jenny Hwang and I are co-editing a new book on refugee mental health for the American Psychological Association. Another colleague, Kent Annan, just wrote a really great book called You Welcomed Me (InterVarsity). It’s about the refugee crisis and the role faith communities can play in welcoming immigrants and refugees into the United States.

As Christians, we often let our fear drive us instead of letting faith drive our response. We did some research during the 2018 political election, trying to understand what’s accounting for this fear we’re seeing from the faith community.

Let’s talk about first responders. It’s one thing to be equipped for meeting physical and logistical needs. But what about psychological and emotional needs?

There’s a lot of variance on how equipped they are to deal with the psychological aspects of disaster. If you look at many organizations, the vast majority of their training is on taking care of those physical needs—shelter, food, medical. But overall, there’s a major gap on preparing people to deal with the mental health side.

Now, one encouraging thing in recent years is a significant increase in stressing the importance of disaster mental health, but it still lags far behind other competencies. We’re trying to address that; a big part of the Institute is to help the church prepare and care in a disaster-filled world. One of the ways that we do that is by translating the psychological research and the evidence-informed interventions. We have a new manual called “Spiritual First Aid” based on the research we’ve done, on how to help in the aftermath of a disaster.

Turning the topic toward you personally now. You’ve been cancer-free for about four and a half years?

That’s correct. I’m very grateful for that. There are still long-term challenges. One of the things I didn’t realize until going through my own personal disaster was how challenging it can be to find your new normal. (Aten had a colostomy as part of his cancer treatment, and his “new normal” includes an ever-present colostomy bag.) It took a long while for me to think of it as something positive, that this is actually one of the reasons that I’m still here. But it has definitely been a challenge.

You were already an expert on bad things happening to people. So when something really bad hit you on a personal level, did you feel like your knowledge equipped you to better deal with something like this?

There’s two sides to that for me. Parts of my training really did help me.

Jamie Aten

When my oncologist said I was in for my own personal disaster, some people thought that seemed insensitive, but I was actually grateful for it. He wasn’t trying to be insensitive; he was trying to frame it in a way that I could understand. It was helpful to think about my experience as a disaster expert, because I had no idea how to think about cancer.

There were times when I would be struggling, and I’d remember what the research suggests—for instance, that prayer helps improve well-being, so I knew that was something I needed to stay engaged in.

At the same time, cancer helped me understand my research in a very different way. I look at a lot of the work I’ve done now very differently—everything from how I think about resilience to even the language that I choose when responding to disasters now.

Talk about the psychology of a widespread disaster as opposed to a personal disaster—say, losing a loved one to an auto accident or a disease, as opposed to losing someone to, say, an auto accident or a disease.

There are a lot of similarities to both, whether you’re going through a personal disaster or a mass disaster. But the difference with a mass disaster tends to be the community experience of going through something together. With a mass disaster, often our social networks are more interrupted, which can make the recovery process so much more difficult. For example, if you have a health issue—a personal disaster—it’s unlikely that the rest of your social network also has this health issue. But in the event of a mass disaster, probably your closest friends and family may also be going through the exact same trauma. And that social network may actually be physically separated from you for a period of time.

Something else that can happen—something that I think is a positive about mass disasters—is that we’re more likely to rely on our community, sharing an understanding about what we’ve gone through, to make meaning of the event.

When it’s a personal disaster like a health crisis, we tend to focus on the internal “why” questions, and that can be isolating because others around you may not have gone through the same thing. Whereas when you go through a mass disaster, you got whole communities asking these questions together. For example, after the Boston Marathon bombing, you had the whole community rallying together under the banner of “Boston Strong.” Same thing after the floods in 2016, it was “Louisiana Strong.” So even though their networks were dispersed, people came together to make meaning of the suffering they’ve gone through.

Is there a difference in how people deal with a natural disaster—a tornado, hurricane, or flood—versus a man-made disaster, like a mass shooting or a terrorist attack?

Yes. Research indicates that people may respond differently psychologically and even spiritually. With a natural disaster, people are more likely to attribute the cause to God or a higher power. Your insurance policy on your home or your car probably includes an “acts of God” provision. This is how we “explain” things that you can’t explain.

On the other hand, some research suggests that after a terrorist event—a man-made disaster—we’re much more likely to place blame that on a person or a group. Some research suggests that based on the event, we may invoke and think about God differently, and use religious coping differently.

After a natural disaster, research indicates that interpersonal conflict tends to go up—fighting among couples, domestic disputes, and so on. But with a terrorist attack, there tends to be more of a kind of a circle-the-wagons mentality, what social psychologists call ingroup-outgroup differences—a tendency to come together as a form of self-protection while excluding others. We saw that after 9/11 with an increase in hate crimes against different ethnic minority groups.

Why do we look for someone or something to blame after a disaster?

It’s very common when bad things happen for us to ask why. When something really difficult occurs, it threatens what we thought we knew about the world and about God—and maybe even about ourselves. That can quickly turn from not only asking why, but wanting to blame others as a way to quiet some of those questions, or to try to make sense of what’s happening.

But the process of asking why can be helpful to survivors, because by continuing to ask, you’re engaging it, and often the meaning comes from the engagement with the struggle.

Does knowing the cause help? That it’s a certain terrorist group, or that a levee broke, flooding the community?

I’ve found that with the why questions most people ask, what they’re really struggling with isn’t as black-and-white as that, as simple as “Where did this come from?” Often what people are really asking are much broader questions about God, about goodness and evil. It’s really a much larger question. When our worlds are turned upside down, there’s usually not a simple answer to the why to make meaning of the pain. But it’s by engaging with that pain, and by trying to make meaning out of it, where the healing starts to come.

You’ve seen the bumper sticker “S–t Happens.” Could that be a healthy attitude to adopt, just to acknowledge that bad stuff will happen, rather than living in denial?

I think it’s about trying to find a balance between what some researchers call “the ostrich effect,” where we just want to bury our heads in the sand, while also not allowing ourselves to reach a point where we’re almost paralyzed with fear. We have to find that middle ground. That was one thing that helped me with my cancer experience—I didn’t feel like God was some Far Side caricature in heaven like, “Jamie did something wrong, I’ll drop a piano on his head.” But we do need to recognize that brokenness is part of the overall narrative of the human experience. It’s not always because somebody’s done something wrong, but by knowing that there’s suffering in the world—and even embracing it—that can be helpful to us.

In our research, we’ve found that “spiritual fortitude,” psychologically, is different than grit and resilience. If you think about resilience as trying to bounce back from adversity to get back to your “normal” life, spiritual fortitude is accepting that there is suffering and that you are trying to learn how to live amidst it, rather than just think of it as something to get past.

You were quoted in a recent news article where the title says it all: “Religious practice is declining. Here’s why that’s bad news for disaster recovery.” Elaborate on that.

As we see religious practice and participation declining, we need to recognize that a significant amount of disaster response in the U.S. is driven by faith-based organizations, with giving coming from local congregations. I was in D.C. a couple years ago at the National VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) when a hurricane was threatening Hawaii. In the crisis room, you’ve got all these people from different branches of government, including a representative from National VOAD, representing about 75 major nonprofits. A significant number of those nonprofits are faith-based relief organizations that work side-by-side with FEMA. Now if the shift of declining religious practice reduces giving at the local congregation level, some of these organizations may struggle to survive—and may not be able to provide the needed support. Also, we’re seeing fewer volunteers from local congregations.

But at the same time we see declining numbers in the Christian faith tradition, we’re seeing more faith-based nonprofits from other world religions stepping in and helping to meet that need. And there’s been a movement of more secular organizations too.

So while we may see a decline in help from people and ministries in the Christian faith, we don’t yet know how that will affect things, particularly as those from other faiths and the secular world fill the void. But I still feel like even if the funding and number of volunteers don’t decline, there is definitely going to be a negative impact because those faith-based groups help to give meaning and hope in a way that very few secular organizations can.

Are people of faith better at dealing with disaster?

There’s a lot of nuances to that question. Our team just did a paper for a psychological journal, where we did a 44-year review of all the empirical research on psychology and religion in disasters. We found that overall, religion and spirituality tend to be helpful to people, that people who embrace faith tend to fare better over time after a disaster. As we took a closer look, we found that it’s not so much about how religious a person is, but rather about how one utilizes and engages their faith during a time of disaster that best predicts resilience.

For example, you could have two people, both similar in terms of religious commitment. One person engages their faith in a way that they’re pulling in from their spiritual resources, making meaning of their experience, maybe believing God is helping them through it. Whereas the other person feels they’re being punished by God, and they’re withdrawing from their spiritual community. We’ve found that the person who can engage in a more adaptive way with their faith is typically going to be more resilient, while the person in the second example is much more likely to have higher levels of depression and anxiety and even PTSD.

When people help in the wake of a disaster, they often wrestle with wanting to say comforting words while also being afraid of saying something that could sting. Like, “God allows everything for a reason!” Is it better to just keep our mouths shut?

I think that’s one of the biggest barriers to helping others in times of need—the fear that we’re going to say the wrong thing. We just have to accept that we’re going to make mistakes. One of the things that I’ve learned is that your presence is going to speak more deeply to those who are hurting than any words you could ever say. I encourage people just to show up and be with those that are hurting, sitting with them through that pain. It’s one of the most important gifts that you can give someone who’s facing a hardship. And if you do make a mistake, apologize and move on.

We’ve interviewed chaplains who had tons of experience responding to disasters. They talked about what we call a “practical presence” of just showing up, and trying to meet a practical need. That’s ministering to the whole person. In almost every major disaster I’ve ever worked, those chaplains talk about the “ministry of presence,” just being there. That’s powerful.

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Managing Editor, ORBITER magazine