HDI studies a wide spectrum of disasters and humanitarian challenges, as well as their impacts domestically and internationally. HDI conducts basic and applied research to support novel and innovative humanitarian disaster resources, tools, interventions, and to inform public policy.


Templeton HDI PhD Student

A Ph.D. student, Tabitha Epperson began conducting field research after the flooding in South Carolina last fall for HDI’s grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Her family lost their home in Hurricane Katrina, and this fall, life came full circle when Tabitha got to help a woman who had lost her home.

Finding Meaning, Relating to God, and Experiencing Growth After a Natural Disaster

Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) launched a $2.4 million research project, supported by a $1.9 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, to explore how adversity fosters human resilience and growth. This three-year research initiative, led by HDI’s faculty team at Wheaton College, began in August 2015.

“By studying people going through the significant trauma of natural disasters, we hope to learn how people can navigate the difficulties and struggles in a way that leads to positive psychological and spiritual growth,” says Dr. Jamie Aten, HDI founder and co-director, and Rech Associate Professor of Psychology.

A team of six scholars from Wheaton College, Georgia State University, University of North Texas, and Hope College will guide the research.

“This project’s unique combination of research rigor, sensitivity to the depth of human need in response to humanitarian disasters, and attention to the complex role of religious faith in supporting human resilience under such conditions promises together to offer a truly great contribution to our understanding of the human experience,” says Provost Stan Jones.

Fatalities and Old Age following the Tuscaloosa Tornado

Tuscaloosa Tornado DamageOn April 27, 2011, an EF4 tornado struck Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reports of the tornado striking a mid-size city with approximately 91,000 residents raised concerns among first responders about mass casualties and fatalities. In collaboration with the University of Alabama Medical School Center for Aging, HDI is studying risk factors for the elderly during disasters and developing recommendations, tools, and resources to help congregations.

We found that a disproportionate number of fatalities occurred among Tuscaloosa City’s older residents, and older female residents experienced the majority of these deaths. Because religion and spirituality are important aspects in the lives of many older adults, we are working on recommendations for federal, state, and local governments on how to work with congregations and other religious entities to ensure the oldest residents of our communities are safe and secure in the event of a disaster. We are also collaborating to develop tools and resources to enhance each congregation’s ability to better care for elderly in the wake of disasters based on this research.

Developing Rural Resilience in Frontier Mental Health

HDI Research on Rural ResilienceHDI partnered with the Center for Rural Psychology and the Phillips County (Montana) Hospital Association to take a creative approach to the problem of mental health service access in frontier areas. Researchers for this study, funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, conducted face-to-face interviews with 29 residents of Phillips County, MT. Analysis of the data revealed situations consonant with national trends in rural mental health in terms of challenges and needs. Distance posed a significant barrier to pursuing and receiving psychological assistance. Cultural factors such as the negative stigma associated with needing mental health care and the lack of awareness of mental health issues weighed heavily in perceived barriers.

Though our results reflected similarities to existing research, the level of self-degradation common to participants’ responses was a surprising finding. When efforts were made to bring services closer, to hire a social worker on a biweekly basis, some conveyed suspicion toward the quality of mental health professionals who would choose to practice in the county. We hope to develop alternative approaches in the future.

Faith and Disaster Resilience Among Katrina Survivors

More than 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, HDI is studying faith and disaster resilience among Katrina survivors on topics such as the buffering effect of religious support on depression symptoms and an investigation of the relationships between resource loss, meaning making, and posttraumatic stress. Read more from Dr. Jamie Aten in Christianity Today >

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