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Ashley Merchant


Secondary Trauma Post Natural & Technical Disasters

  • According to Rupali Datta, an associate professor of biology at Michigan Tech, the impacts from acid mine drainage affect the aquatic ecosystem and the biological community structure due to very low pH levels and high levels of bio available heavy metals. If there had been proper oversight, this technical man-made disaster would not have occurred.
  • “This was a totally avoidable situation” (Sarker, 2015, p. 3).
  • There are many communities, which run up and down the banks of the river. It has been said that the Animas River is the livelihood of this area because it holds so much meaning for the people that live near it; from recreation to farming, the Animas River holds value

Animas River Gold King

Mine Spill


Durango, CO currently does not have a resource for community members for people who experience secondary trauma effects stemming from a technical or natural disaster.

Our group and program aims to bring attention

to mental health issues & social impacts related

to the health of our environment and

educate on how the environment

interplays with our health

& well-being.

  • About Us: The “Animas Community Listening and Empowerment Project” is a grassroots group that formed weeks after the Gold King Mine Spill to address the social, economic, political, and emotional effects of environmental disaster.

    Our Purpose: We are dedicated to providing public forums to hear stories and experiences from our region. Our goal is to foster better understanding between Animas-San Juan river communities, and recognize needs of the bioregional as a whole.

    Our Projects: We partnered with Animas High School students to host a public forum where community members could express their thoughts in a comfortable environment. The first event was held Oct 8, 2015 at the La Plata County Fairgrounds, and approximately 200 people attended.


The program will be based off of the social work green care model, which endorses the idea that healthy living things create healthy living environments.

The health of the Animas River is important to our own psychological and physical health needs.

Psychological stress has become an important consideration in managing environmental health risks.

"The key message emerging is that contact with nature improves psychological health by reducing pre-existing stress levels, enhacing mood, offering both a 'restorative environment' and a protective effect from future stresses" (Gallis, 2013, p. 4).

After a toxic contamination, the community can be a major player, along with government agencies and possibly industry, to help combat the physical and/or social problems caused by disasters. The community can be an agent to help protect the surroundings, prevent future man-made incidences, and also create a dynamic program for when disasters do occur, man-made or natural.

According Clausen (2016) a technological disaster, communities often become divisive; Sociologists call this the “corrosive community” tendency, where corrosive communities are characterized by anger, uncertainty, loss of institutional trust, collective stress, self-isolation and litigation.

After a toxic contamination, the community can be a major player, along with government agencies and possibly industry, to help combat the physical and/or social problems caused by disasters.

The community can be an agent to help protect the surroundings, prevent future man-made incidences, and also create a dynamic program for when disasters do occur, man-made or natural.




The goal of Peer Listening is to emphasize the importance of listening over formal counseling techniques. The focus moves away from fixing the problem to addressing the person.

An important step in the healing process is to communicate our feelings.

Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Committee (2011) states that research has shown that people who are able to talk about their problems in a trusting situation have fewer physical and emotional symptoms.

Disaster victims do not always seek formal support services for various reasons.

Assure confidentiality & trust. Authentic, caring, empathetic, accepting of others. They would be willing to let the person they are working with have the responsibility for their own growth and change.

According to Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Committee (2011), some do not seek help because they do not perceive themselves, nor wish to be labeled, as mentally ill; this may be especially true within certain cultural groups.

Communication skills, serve as liaisons between disaster survivors and community resources.

Communication helps to connect people; someone is able to listen for support, in a non-judgmental way empathy and compassion.


According to Byrnes (2012), Resilience Circles use and adapt a free, seven-session curriculum provided by the Resilience Circle Network, where the curriculum focuses on learning, mutual aid, and social action.

Resilience Circles can be held through congregations, neighborhood associations, activist networks, and the like. The idea is for a group to come together with a common interest where people are able to share their thoughts in the group, talk together about the topic, and even take social action.

There would be a facilitator to run each group, however these facilitators can be trained similarly to Peer Listeners. The Peer Listeners and Resilience Circles would serve all of the community members in our local counties.

1. If there had been proper oversight, this technical man-made disaster would not have occurred. “This was a totally avoidable situation” (Sarker, 2015, p. 3).

2. Couch and Coles (2015) state that, generally, communities with confirmed chronic environmental contamination are more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged and lacking the social, economic, and cultural resources to respond effectively.

3. Wendolyne Omana works as a Health and Family Advocate for La Plata Family Centers Coalition in Durango, CO; she has reported families in distress after the animas river spill specifically when it has affected their food availability, crops or spiritual connection with the river.

4. Rebecca Calusen, is a Sociology professor at Fort Lewis College and has attended the Navajo nation IRB training specific to their study. Clausen (2016) states that the navajo nation has been impacted by the Animas River spill.

5. “Technical Disasters differ from natural disasters (e.g. hurricanes and tornadoes) in that they may not be recognized as critical issues by community residents” (Couch & Coles, 2015, p. 142).


What are the social, economic, political, and emotional effects of an environmental disaster, and how can the community serve in the change process of creating a resilient community?

6. According to Kessler et al. (2012), research suggests that disasters can lead to increased population prevalence of mental illness in the range from 5% to 40%.

7. While disasters can have a profound psychological effect on the populations affected, Weissbecker (2009) states the right to mental health has not received adequate attention from national and international institutions and organizations.

8. Kessler et al. (2012) found that mental disorders associated with disasters were more proximally due to these secondary stressors than to the disasters themselves (e.g. housing, jobs, etc).

9. McCabe et al. (2014) argue is the importance of anticipating and managing adverse emotional, mental, and behavioral reactions to disasters is increasingly being recognized as a priority for public health emergency preparedness.

10. McEwen and Tucker’s (2011) article argues that emerging evidence suggests that psychosocial stress and toxicants may interact to modify health risks.

11. Tucker (2011) psychosocial stress contributes to adverse physical health effects including cardiovascular effects such as increased blood pressure and triggering of acute myocardial infarctions, reversible cardiomyopathies, immune system effects such as inflammation, psychological and social effects such as increased post-disaster depression and anxiety disorders, and even premature death.

12. McEwen and Tucker (2011) found that children who develop in lower SES households, in addition to being exposed to toxic substances and excessive noise and temperature variations, are more likely to live in unfavorable housing conditions and to be exposed to what have been termed “risky family” dynamics.

13. Yun, Lurie, and Hyde (2010) found local engagement is key: community agencies can alert public health officials to emerging issues. Building community resilience, strengthening prevention science, and improving surveillance will be critical to ameliorating the long-term health impact of future disasters.


We held an event at the Fairground and partnered with Animas High School StoryCorps project and Fort Lewis College Sociology department on the Animas River mine spill.

We held an event at San Juan College in Farmington Mexico where we partnered with Animas High School, Navajo Preparatory Academy, and San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District.

Our group will be holding a third community event at Rotary Park which will be my main study where will partner with Venaya Yazzie (Navajo Artist )organizing a traveling art exhibit on the Animas River.

Survey for people participating to fill out with some basic demographic information including, sex, age, socioeconomic status and time lived in the community.

We will then post the questions and sticky notes up in the park for community members to attend the event or recruit people passing by.

  • I will hand out sticky notes coded with numbers associated with a survey number. This way the demographic information will still be paired with the participants responses for collecting data.

We developed eight questions and posted them on very large sheets of paper. Provided sticky notes for people who attended the event to anonymously post their answers on the large sheets of papers with the questions.


Our sample size for the La Plata Fairgrounds consisted of 53 participants composed of students, and community members. The sample size consisted of around 20 participants for the San Juan College events was composed of students and community members. We did not collect any demographic information for these pilot studies.

For the Rotary park event it is estimated we will collect around 100 responses from community participants with diverse backgrounds.

This research study will use convenience sampling, because responses will be from whoever attends the event or happens to pass Rotary Park to participate. The data collection methods will be collected from different events wth various methods. The Rotary Park event will be new research data collection, and the pilot study research from the prior events will also be utilized.

Instruments/measures/coding schemes

The following questions and themes/ post hoc codes will be used to collect the percentages.

  • How have you been affected by the spill? Theme/codes: Emotional, Increased Awareness/Education, Recreation, No Affect, Subsistence/water use.
  • What does the river mean to you? Theme/codes: Personal Value, Community Value, Recreational Value, Ecological Value, Economic Value.
  • What information or resources do you need about the spill or to recover from the spill? Theme/codes: Discuss prevention/solution, Long term affects general, Long term affects sediment, Water quality data, Policy info, Healing, Nothing.
  • What does the river need? Theme/codes: Public awareness/concern, Restoration, Advocates, Expertise.
  • What word should be in the name of the group? Theme/codes: See list of responses.
  • What issues should the group focus on? Theme/codes: Prevention, Remediation, Community Alliance Building, Research, Education.
  • What are some solution to protect your personal human future? Remediation/Research, Social Change/Activism, Education.
  • What are some solutions to protect the river’s future? Theme/codes: Policy, Community Building/Activism, Remediation/Research.

Since the research study at Rotary Park will have data collected with demographic information. This will be used with a Chi-square analyses.

For example questions such as, “Are there significant differences between males and females in the percentages of a particular theme?” or “Are there significant differences in responses based on socio economic status.”

Genial.ly. 40 likes · 6 talking about this. Genial.ly

- Expect to find more of an impact with lower socio economic status

- Expect to find more impact with people who live closer to the river, and use the river for food or income

  • Our study will use convenience sampling, which is sampling bias and that the sample is not representative of the entire population.
  • Systematic bias stems from sampling bias - constant difference between the results from the sample and the theoretical results from the entire population.
  • Results from a study that uses a convenience sample can differ significantly with the results from the entire population.
  • Skewed results.

  • Criticism about using a convenience sample is the limitation in generalization and inference making about the entire population. Since the sample is not representative of the population, the results of the study cannot speak for the entire population.
  • This results to a low external validity of the study.

  • The best study would be a sample of the entire population effected by the Animas River to be more reliable; however, given the time constraints for the project it makes getting a large sample size challenging.

Expected Results/Implications/Limitations

What might the implications of your results be – both for your specific agency/program, as well as the larger field?

How have you been affected by the spill?

The highest percentage was 32% for emotional

What issues should community groups focus on?

The highest percentage was 30% for prevention and 21% for remidiation

What does the River need?

The highest percentage was 48% for public awareness

  • Peer Listerners would help individuals affected with their emotions, and Resilience Circles can promote social action for prevention, remidiation and public awareness

The results will help form our groups actions since we are approaching the project from the bottom up.

  • Creating buy-in from other organizations involved with the pariticular social issue
  • Developing relationships and partnerships to educate them on why listening & empowerment is important
  • Sustainability of Resilience Circles/ funding issues

What’s the solution to the possible issues? How might you improve upon these shortcomings in future studies?


Byrnes, S. (2012). Resilience circles: Born in a struggling economy (4th ed., Vol. 23). Boston: Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Couch, S. R., & Coles, C. J. (2011). Community stress, psychosocial Hazards, and EPA decision-making in communities impacted by chronic technological disasters. American Journal of Public Health, 101(S1), 140-148.

Johnson, D. (n.d.). Effects of the animas river spill. Retrieved February 2, 2016, from http://www.claimsjournal.com/news/west/2015/08/24/265306.htm

Kessler, R. C., Mclaughlin, K. A., Koenen, K. C., Petukhova, M., & Hill, E. D. (2012). The importance of secondary trauma exposure for post-disaster mental disorder. Epidemiol Psychiatr Sci Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 21(01), 35-45.

McCabe, O. L., Semon, N. L., Thompson, C. B., Lating, J. M., Everly, G. S., Perry, C. J., . . . Links, J. M. (2014). Building a national model of public mental health preparedness and community resilience: Validation of a dual-intervention, systems-based approach. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness., 8(06), 511-526.

McEwen, B. S., & Tucker, P. (2011). Critical biological pathways for chronic psychosocial stress and research opportunities to advance the consideration of stress in chemical risk assessment. American Journal of Public Health, 101(S1), 131-139.

Peer Listener Training Manual. (2011). Retrieved February 2, 2016, from http://nsgl.gso.uri.edu/masgc/masgch11002.pdf

Weissbecker, I. (2009). Mental health as a human right in the context of recovery after disaster and conflict. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 22(1), 77-84.

Yun, K., Lurie, N., & Hyde, P. S. (2010). Moving Mental Health into the Disaster-Preparedness

Spotlight. New England Journal of Medicine, 363(13), 1193-1195.