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UC Faculty Member Lends Expertise to Assist Earthquake Recovery in China

Mei Tang spent her summer in the earthquake-ravaged Sichuan Province working with psychologists and counselors that were assisting teachers and displaced families.

Date: 10/13/2008
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Mei Tang and Lisa Britton
Mei Tang, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of counseling and program coordinator for the College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services (CECH) Counseling Program, spent part of her summer assisting earthquake victims in the hardest-hit villages in China’s Sichuan Province, following the May earthquake that was the deadliest to hit China in more than 30 years.
Earthquake devastation in China
Earthquake devastation in China

Tang, who has participated in numerous academic collaborations with psychology faculty at Peking University, joined those faculty and college students to aid in the emotional recovery from the quake that reportedly left more than 80,000 people dead or missing.

Tang’s teaching and research background includes school counseling and counseling children. In China, children started school in late August, just three months after the earthquake. Tang says she was working with teachers in two schools, one serving children from first-through-eighth grade, and the other a high school. One of the buildings had been condemned and torn down, so classes were being held in a temporary structure. Tang says she also was working with displaced families who were staying in camps constructed of similar housing structures.

earthquake damage

“Even though the earthquake happened three months prior to my arrival, there were still urgent survival needs, such as where to get food and clean water,” she says. “Everyone is coping with their individual difficulty.

“I’ll never forget the degree of destruction. Eighty percent of the buildings are closed because they are unsafe,” Tang says. “Yet, some buildings in the shopping districts remain open and the merchants are still trying to go about their work. It’s devastating to see what used to be a lively, prosperous area in ruins.”

The counselors were providing training for teachers to be on the lookout for severe emotional distress in schoolchildren. The region is still affected by aftershocks which are psychologically affecting children as well as adults.

Tang adds that the teachers needed counseling support as well. “The teachers are coping with losses of their own and said they were already struggling under the stress of a heavy workload and low compensation before the earthquake. In this remote area, families who suffered property loss very likely did not have insurance and the resources are slim.”

Tang meets with teachers in China

Tang says there is also anger that stretches beyond the devastation of the quake – anger over allegations of faulty construction that contributed to the disaster. For families who suffered the loss of children, Tang says the anger and grief are overwhelming. “We were examining how to best try and help those families. I felt that for the first time, the government was seeing the value of the work of psychologists and counselors and people trained with helping skills,” Tang says. She provided lectures centering on problem-solving and coping strategies in psychological recovery.

Mei Tang
Mei Tang

Tang adds that she was impressed by how government on all levels – local, state and national – was working in tandem with the recovery. “On our way to the remote areas, I would see a number of signs announcing the governments that had taken charge of that area of recovery. The government is matching sister cities with resources and I think that’s a good system.”

Tang will collaborate with Chinese researchers at Peking University as they investigate the long-term impact of the emotional trauma from the earthquake and as they evaluate the success of their efforts in assisting schools and families.

Tang was also able to have a short summer visit with her family in Dalian, China, which was unaffected by the earthquake. Ironically, on her return to Cincinnati, she was once again without electricity at home for several days, following the hurricane-force winds that struck Cincinnati on Sept. 14.