Faculty Spotlight: Gwen Mitchell
Dr. Gwen Mitchell is an Assistant Professor and Field Placement Director for the International Disaster Psychology M.A. program at the University of Denver. In addition to being a licensed clinical psychologist in Colorado, she teaches a number of courses at DU including: International Disaster Psychology, Crisis Intervention and Psychotherapeutic Models of Intervention. Dr. Mitchell also provided clinical supervision and programmatic support for SalusWorld- an International NGO with the mission to "stand, collaborate, and coordinate with victims of trauma, humanitarian workers, and other activists to facilitate a return to a healthy emotional life."
Dr. Mitchell's extensive experience and expertise in global mental health and trauma was almost coincidental. Dr. Mitchell was participating in a forensic internship in NYC when she met a physician who had just deployed with Doctors Without Borders. A few months later she joined the organization and deployed to a number of post-conflict war zones. Due to the individuals she worked with and the particular experiences gained through the opportunity, her interest in global mental health increased. Dr. Mitchell notes that it has been an exciting time in the discipline as she has been able to see a fairly young field mature. Along with this "growing up" in the field, there have been plenty of instances that encourage reflections and lessons learned- and Dr. Mitchell has been able to play a role in this process of growing and improving.
In a major initiative that grew along with the discipline, Dr. Mitchell became involved with SalusWorld, which she states requires a pinch of passion to deal with all the challenges. Aligning with her opinion on what is most frustrating in the field, Dr. Mitchell expressed that funding was always a challenge. There is often an ill-informed audience who sees mental health as a luxury and believe mental health should be sidelined for clean drinking water. Dr. Mitchell aptly asks why these two must be mutually exclusive. In this particular scenario, individuals will have a difficult time accessing water from a well if they are depressed and lack access to mental health services that could improve their overall functioning. This example also stresses how interconnected mental health is with other disciplines. In microfinance projects, if an individual is suicidal, he or she cannot pay loans- therefore the development sector really needs to incorporate mental health initiatives into their own work.
Dr. Mitchell identified that there are intersections between conflict resolution and clinical psychology, but the ties could be strengthened. For example, conflict resolution practitioners would benefit from thinking about how PTSD might interact with restorative justice programs, or question- how does someone heal with unrecognized abuse? Students at Korbel often think on the macro level and when these students take Dr. Mitchell's courses, she states that students are often fascinated to learn how mental health interventions can help heal systems.
For students studying conflict resolution, Dr. Mitchell states that an academic lens only helps to enhance concepts of best practices. In the field, it is often easy to rush into solutions and actions, but an academic perspective can remind organizations to reflect on practice, collaborate, and keep sustainability in mind, thus leading to more effective actions and interventions. Additionally, Dr. Mitchell advises that when working in the conflict resolution field, it is imperative not to shelve mental health with the mindset that it can simply be paused or "dealt with later." Trauma and its impacts can stymie conflict resolution initiatives and should be addressed in coordination with, instead of sacrificed for, conflict resolution efforts.
When asked about how she manages the immense pressures and disheartening stories that accompany her work in global mental health, Dr. Mitchell stated that mindfulness is key, and instead of having a "head in the sand" approach to trauma, she would rather be aware of the issues and work towards recovery. She laughingly replied that on her tombstone, the words "She tried." would be a welcome epithet.