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Disaster and Trauma Response for the 21st Century:

Operation Mind, Body, and Spiritual Resiliency

In the early morning hours of September 11, 2001, one of the largest person-made disasters in U.S. history took place killing nearly 3,000 Americans with over 6,000 others severely injured. Two jets crashed into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan hijacked by 19 al-Qaeda Terrorists. The Twin Towers collapsed in less than two hours. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth plane, heading towards Washington D.C. crashed into a field in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, PA. where several brave passengers blocked the hijackers’ efforts. This was the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil in American history. Hence, the war on terrorism began.

The impact of this trauma is etched into our psychological, emotional, and spiritual consciousness. It has created a unique type of historical trauma among many Americans. Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. The global pandemic has created a re-traumatization of our medical, physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. As mental health professionals, we should be mindful that for many individuals, the war on terrorism (2001), COVID-19 pandemic (2020-present), as well as other traumas have toppled, collapsed, and shifted our mind, body, and spiritual foundation.  These critical events, alongside our clients’ unique personal trauma, have compromised their coping resources and resiliency skills. It has woven a pattern of “complex trauma” during a mental health pandemic, which has created a unique type of professional burnout that I refer to as empathy fatigue. Empathy fatigue, a phrase I coined and a construct I began developing in 1999, impacts our medical, physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, socio-cultural, environmental, and occupational health. We are the wounded healers stumbling through restoring our fragmented selves, placing the metaphoric “do not disturb” or “in session” sign on our exterior door.

Today, the human spirit and soul are at stake for professionals at the therapeutic epicenter of mental health disaster relief. We are committed to therapeutic engagement with the trauma, loss, and grief associated with person-made and natural disasters. One group that is vulnerable to medical, physical, and mental health-related issues is military service members. Indeed, wars and civil conflicts have accelerated worldwide within the last 20 years. Today, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift within the counseling and psychology profession. This is particularly relevant when it comes to providing mental health services to active-duty service members, veterans, veterans with disabilities, and military families, many of whom have been at the forefront of both humanitarian and combat-related missions.

The stench of death in hospitals and tent cities full of asylum seekers and refugees lie motionless on the battlefield of war and a coronavirus pandemic. The mind, body, and spirit of both civilians and warfighters’ lives have been impacted in catastrophic ways. The operation tempo and mission creep of healing the medical, physical, and psychological wounds are relentless. Compounding complex trauma in the U.S. are the increasing rates of suicide ideation, attempts, and completions among civilians and military veterans. Additional traumas include the chronic gun violence seen in our communities, resulting in mortality rates of over 40,000 children, adolescents, and adults during 2022. Globally, many individuals, such as asylum seekers and refugees, experience traumas through rape, torture, imprisonment, and human trafficking. Additionally, the rise in white nationalism, hate propelled by far-right and other extremist groups, has threatened our homeland security. This is well documented by The Southern Poverty Law Center and other research and advocacy organizations. It reminds us of how fragile and vulnerable we are as civilians living outside combat theater. Consequently, the mind, body, and spiritual cost of such critical incidents on the lives of clients we serve should be worrisome for mental health professionals.  

As we prepare for the next person-made and natural disaster, it is essential that we follow the path of identification, prevention, and preparation of vulnerable individuals and groups impacted by complex trauma. We can achieve our mission by enhancing the overall mind, body, and spiritual resiliency and coping resources of the individuals we serve. We begin this journey by being mindful that we are all having a normal response to abnormal critical events. As mental health professionals, we are treating a unique type of complex trauma in both military and civilian populations affected by a wide range of person-made and natural disasters. We must move beyond clinical characteristics and standardized assessments to define - What is healthy-unhealthy and normal-abnormal functioning for the 21st century in a world full of medical, physical, and psychological pain and suffering? 

It is of paramount importance that we cultivate, recruit, and train-up a new generation of professional mental health warriors. These professionals should be prepared to provide competent and empathy-driven services to those affected by person-made and natural disasters. Thus, the mental health platform I propose is a new mission, Operation Mind, Body, and Spiritual Resiliency. The focus of this directive is to deploy strategic mental health resources at the community, state, and federal level to heal the mind, body, and spirit of traumas experienced as a result of military operational stress, on the covid pandemic battlefield, and other person-made and natural disasters.


We welcome guest columnist, Mark Stebnicki. Dr. Stebnicki is the creator and instructor of TCIs Clinical Military Counselor Certificate (CMCC) , and the Psycho-Social Aspects of Pandemic Viruses. He has also provided courses on the topics of mental health for those affiliated with the military

About Dr. Stebnicki:

Mark A. Stebnicki, Ph.D., LCMHC, DCMHS, CRC, CMCC is Professor Emeritus and former Coordinator of the Military and Trauma Counseling (MTC) certificate program in the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation Services at East Carolina University. He developed the MTC certificate in 2015 and the Clinical Military Counseling Certificate (CMCC) program in 2016 offered through the Telehealth Certificate Institute. Dr. Stebnicki has been an active practitioner, counselor educator, and researcher with over 35 years’ experience. He has written 10 professional texts in the fields of rehabilitation and mental health. His primary areas of interest relate to working with individuals with trauma, chronic illness, and disability. He also has extensive experience working with the medical, psychosocial, vocational, and mental health aspects of active-duty service members, veterans, veterans with disabilities, and military family.