Women's Inspired Leadership

Spirit of Advocacy

Debra Beidel outside leaning against a wall

– Deborah Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP –

Founder and Executive Director


On an October morning in 2006, a man walked into a one-room schoolhouse in the Pennsylvania Amish community of Nickel Mines armed with a semiautomatic handgun, a shotgun, a rifle, two knives, a stun gun and 600 rounds of ammunition. Before taking his own life, he shot 10 young girls, ultimately killing five of them. The wounded children were taken to a clinic in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where Deborah Beidel was working.

“I spent the next week trying to work through this horrific event,” said Beidel, who today serves as founder and executive director of UCF RESTORES, a nonprofit clinical research center and treatment clinic in Orlando. “But there were moments of resilience that amazed me, and those moments convinced me that I would spend the rest of my career serving survivors of trauma, doing what I can to understand and help them.”

According to the American Psychiatric Association, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Beidel, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and is certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology, already had ample experience in her field when she found herself called specifically to the treatment of those affected by trauma.

In 2007, Beidel relocated to the University of Central Florida (UCF), where she could not only conduct her research, but could put her findings into practice. She assembled a unique model of treatment that would prove to deliver remarkable results, founding UCF RESTORES. A research grant from the U.S. Department of Defense provided Beidel and her team with the funding to get started.

“Advocacy is living and breathing your cause. It’s not a job, it’s not a chore — it’s my heart.” – Deborah Beidel

As the program approaches its 10-year anniversary, the team now offers cutting-edge treatment to first responders, veterans, active-duty military, survivors of sexual assault and mass shootings, and others. UCF RESTORES’ unique intensive outpatient program includes daily one-on-one sessions with a licensed mental health clinician over the course of three weeks, as well as group therapy to address concerns often associated with PTSD, such as depression, anxiety and sleep disorders.

Clinical trials of UCF RESTORES’ treatment approach show 76% of first responders and 66% of individuals with combat-related trauma no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after just three weeks of intensive treatment. The relapse rate is 1%.

The university’s reputation as a leading center for modeling, simulation and training also offers a unique advantage for the development of another part of this approach that Beidel believes contributes to her organization’s positive results: virtual reality (VR).

The use of VR at UCF RESTORES allows clinicians to present the sights, sounds and even smells representative of the traumatic event most closely tied to a patient’s PTSD. This helps rewire the patient’s thinking so the sensory triggers are no longer vividly associated with that traumatic event.

VR has been integral to the program’s success, but the software used until this point has been provided by a third party and is not fully customizable. So, Beidel and her team decided to take it a step further, developing a system of their own. Now in clinical trials, the tool allows clinicians to easily program scenarios for any type of trauma.

Beidel and her team have continued to seek out ways to help people. When COVID-19 hit, an event Beidel describes as “globally traumatic,” they quickly put together a Facebook Live series to share their expertise with anyone looking for guidance, covering topics from sleep habits to substance use. The program also launched a single-session consultation model for essential workers, realizing a one-time consultation could help break down existing barriers to mental health care.

“For certain occupations, having PTSD is a real stigma and they don’t want to talk about it,” Beidel said. “But there are events our first responders and our military witness from which no one with a heart should be able to just walk away. How do you walk away from 49 dead and 53 wounded in a nightclub?”

She was referring to the Pulse nightclub shooting in downtown Orlando, and UCF RESTORES has treated victims’ families and first responders of the June 2016 tragedy. “What we have to understand is that there is nothing wrong with witnessing life’s most horrible events and admitting you were affected by them,” she said. “But we also have to understand that it doesn’t mean you are broken.

“We continue to make new discoveries and get the word out there that you can get your life back. People can experience something horrible and then use that event to inspire them to make the world a better place.” – Deborah Beidel

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