Severe weather in the form of Hurricane Isaac and droughts in specific areas of the United States have negatively impacted many people. Not only do natural disasters cause death, injuries, and financial hardship, but they can take an emotional toll as well.
Experts can help us understand the impact natural disasters may have on mental health, as well as how people can cope during the aftermath of severe weather such as hurricanes and droughts.
Mike Page, site director of Child & Family Services North Street location, and director of the agency’s Emergency Services Program, said that the impact on mental health would be different for a hurricane versus a drought.
“A hurricane would be much more likely to produce a traumatic reaction due to the ferocity and lack of ability to prepare oneself for unknown results, i.e., house destroyed via wind or floods, death of pets or family members,” Page said. “The trauma of a hurricane may result in a much exaggerated reaction to the stimuli of the original event, including heavy rain, the sound of wind, the sound of a tree breaking, etc., causing an individual to re-experience panic and other feelings that occurred during the original event.”
“In fact, any stimulus that occurred during the hurricane, even if not directly associated with the ferocious weather itself, could create exaggerated and debilitating re-experiences of the event down the road,” he added.
Although droughts are still adverse, the effect is on a different level, and trauma would be minimal or nonexistent. “A drought, although devastating, would more likely allow for one to come to terms with the event and make adjustments to help cope with the disaster,” Page said. “That being said, the financial devastation of a drought, along with a less than lush view of the world, could cause intense feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. In my opinion, there would be a greater likelihood of an individual developing depressive symptoms symptoms associated with a drought situation, although trauma cannot be ruled out as individual constitutions vary dramatically and loss is certainly associated with either scenario.”
Page has some coping tips for people who have experienced a natural disaster like the recent hurricane and droughts.
“Either case would call for a variety of support. Certainly, one’s basic needs—food, shelter, sense of safety—must be met before dealing with the psychological effects of loss,” he said. “In both cases, people would need to be able to talk about the issue, with family, friends, or an expert, and not keep their feelings inside.”
“In the case of trauma, being able to retell the story of the experience and recall specific stimuli associated with the event offers an opportunity for an individual to circumvent some of the potentially negative long-term effects,” Page added. “Meeting with others who experienced the same trauma gives those who aren’t able to verbalize their feelings a chance to hear from those who can, providing some relief in knowing that they are not alone.”
He said that the emotional recovery process after the natural disaster occurs is individualized for the most part. “Individuals need to have the time to grieve losses and acknowledge their pain,” Page said. “Education about depression and trauma can make a huge difference for an individual who does not know what to expect. Knowing that the feelings that are so uncomfortable to them are not unique and may be temporary is hugely important for many individuals’ recovery. Certainly, sustained difficulty in dealing with extreme emotional disturbances calls for professional assistance.”
Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, said in an email that any type of stressor, including hurricanes, can especially have a negative impact on people who already have a mental illness, are at risk for mental illness, or have chronic stress.
“The unpredictability and ‘drain’ can raise the likelihood that a person with a history of a certain mental disorder (e.g., depression) may experience a worsening or relapse of symptoms,” Durvasula said. “In addition, depending on the conditions (e.g., a Katrina), people may experience trauma which can place them at risk for traumatic stress. Finally, if a person has a history of hurricane induced traumatic stress from before and faces another hurricane, you can see a worsening of the traumatic stress symptoms.”
She added that “people who engage in maladaptive styles of coping or behaviors (e.g., substance use) may find themselves at greater risk of relapse or turning to those behaviors.”
Although completely different, droughts still can negatively impact mental health in a noticeable way. “Drought is more of a chronic stressor since it may impact economics, livelihoods, physical comfort,” Durvasula said. She has tips for how people can handle their mental health properly during natural disasters like hurricanes.
“Be prepared and have social networks to turn to,” Durvasula said. “If people are ready and have the essentials at hand, at least the daily stressors won’t take as big a toll. With social networks and support, there are people to help cope, turn to for emotional support, and to rally around. Volunteering is also great because it can help people feel useful and to find meaning in the disaster.”
People have some advantage when it comes to coping with droughts. “During a drought, not only preparation, but being informed about rationing and how to get through the time, means maintaining social networks, pooling together resources, turning to any assistance or aid to get basic needs,” Durvasula said. “And in all cases, if a person has a history of mental illness and is facing down these crises, it is key to have some access to the mental health team, medications if they are taking them, or some resources to help them if they experience a worsening of symptoms.”
She has even more advice for people who are struggling with mental health issues after the natural disasters subside.
“Talking it out, getting involved in getting life back on track, support groups, faith (if that is part of their coping arsenal)” are various ways she suggested people can cope during the aftermath. “I think the sense of being overwhelmed in the ‘post-disaster’ landscape can put people at risk, especially once the acute and triage teams leave town. After a while the donations stop coming in, but the problems are still there.”
“Postdisaster coping is like a marathon, you have to pace yourself,” Durvasula added. “Some people find it useful to get back to routine (as best as possible) as quickly as possible. It means taking care of oneself and taking care of others, if possible. But many times people will withdraw and won’t share fears, etc. It’s important to have an outlet that feels right, whether that is therapy, support groups, clean-up, or some combination of the above.”
Organizations and departments like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offer free services to help survivors of natural disasters recover emotionally. SAMHSA offers a free Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990), where survivors in the U.S. can call in 24/7 for disaster crisis counseling.
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