Severe weather in the form of Hurricane Isaac and..." /> Severe weather in the form of Hurricane Isaac and..." />

Emotional Recovery from a Natural Disaster

Leafless tree in dirt fieldSevere 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.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jared

    September 20th, 2012 at 2:04 PM

    I was in Asia when the tsunami hit there and boy was it bad.Although none of our group was hurt or suffered loss the very sight of so many people suffering around made us depressed.So I can only imagine what its like to have actually experienced losses due to something like that.And yes,one thing that can definitely help at such times is huddling together with others who have gone through the same.It just gives you energy.I saw that happen there.

  • louisa w

    September 20th, 2012 at 2:19 PM

    Having been the victim of a hurrican before, and sustaining only minor damage to my home, it can be so scary to think about living through an event like that again! There is no water, no electricity, and there is always the chance that looters are going to try to break in and take advantage of the situation. It is bad that at times like these when we should all be paying attention to and taking care of one another, that these events can often bring out the worst in people. I was lucky because I did not lose my home and we did not have to do without too much for too long, but the fear of experiencing that all over again just worries me more every year and makes me want to just pull up stakes and move.

  • Keith

    September 20th, 2012 at 4:40 PM

    If you think back to when Katrina hit and the utter failings of the federal govt to get any kind of real help to the people of LA when they really needed it the most was unspeakable. Here they were doing their fly overs with no real sense of what was going on the ground, and then when they did find out just how bad it was for the residents of NO, well, they still did nothing but show incompetence. I am sure that most of the people who lived through that needed help with recovery, both personal and with their homes, but I can assure you that they did not get half of what they needed because of the lack of compassion that we all saw evident in the powers that be.

  • Melissa

    September 20th, 2012 at 11:43 PM

    Natural disasters have no limit on their fury and can cause extensive damage to life and property, even more than most tragic events in life. So yes I would definitely think there should be a healing process after such an event. The physical scars may disappear but it is the mental ones which often go unhealed.

  • ryder

    September 21st, 2012 at 4:03 AM

    Homes and clothes and all of the material things can be replaced. But the memories, the photos, these are priceless, irreplaceable. That is the area in which so many hurricane and natural disaster victims have such a difficult time, because almost immediately they lose things in their lives that they have treasured but yet there is no hope of ever getting those back.

    I think that sometimes we have to take a step back from our own personal experiences and admit that sometimes, there is nothing, no matter how hard an entity may try, that could bring all of this back. The most that can be done is to get the victims some wonderful grief counselors who can work closely with them as they try to put the pieces of their broken lives back together.

  • Charla

    September 21st, 2012 at 3:38 PM

    When I was young my parents had a farm and we lost everything the year that it just didn’t rain.
    My parents lost their means for gaining a livelihood and for providing for the family. We lost the land, the equipment, the house, everything.
    Xan you imagine how useless this made them feel, to know that through no fault of thier own they had lost everything that they had worked so hard for their whole lives? I was so young when this happened but I still remember so vividly my parents just sitting and crying and that made such an impact on me. It was a picture that I would never forget.

  • Olivia

    September 22nd, 2012 at 5:11 AM

    It must be so difficult to have survived an event such as this yet always for now live with your eye trained for the weather.
    I would live in fear that something was always going to be ready to sneak up on me because so many of these forces of nature can’t be predicted. Think earthquake, tsunami, etc.
    These would probably be feelings that you may not ever get over because these ae going to be those things that you know you have no real control over.

  • brian

    September 22nd, 2012 at 9:48 AM

    this is interesting.I thought all forms of natural disasters would have the same effect as it only means loss of life and property.but seems like it is much more complex than that.even the nature of the disaster seems to matter.


    September 22nd, 2012 at 11:46 PM

    While I do understand that such disasters can bring in a whole lot of emotional trauma and problems for the victims I think this is one question that many will want to know the answer to:

    Does the immediate help matter more or a long term help in offsetting the effect of trauma? Or are the two things equally important? Does this also depend on the kind of disaster in question?


    September 23rd, 2012 at 12:59 PM

    Seems like a very interesting topic.So what actually is the trigger for emotional baggage after a natural disaster?Losing your property and someone close to you?Or is it the experience of being in the midst of something like that?If it is the former then shouldn’t rescue workers also go through the same?

  • Brylan

    September 24th, 2012 at 4:09 AM

    One of the more marked differences between hurricane and drought victims is that the hurricane stories tend to get all the press, while droughts go on all over the world all the time, every day, so they are not that punch of news power that the networks are typically seeking.
    Hurricanes come and go after a few days, so the story is there and then gone, perfect for the news cycle. But the drought storyline has generally stretched over the span of a season or maybe even longer, so drought victims will often be left out in the cold just because of the nature of the story.

  • P.Jackson

    September 24th, 2012 at 12:35 PM

    While it is easy to overcome financial losses,its not that easy when it comes to the effect an event such as a disaster can have on your psyche. Sometimes the scenes that you see could repeat in your mind and all the panic and disturbance of that moment may get etched in your mind for a long time.

    But on the positive side,a few people have benefited from such events and have taken them as a lesson and challenge and try and be thankful for everything they have.

    I think everything has two sides to it a good and a bad one.If we are able to negotiate with the bad and adopt the good then that is how we grow as an individual rather than suffering from what we go through even after the event itself has passed.

  • solomon

    September 25th, 2012 at 8:46 AM

    It’s not like you can totally forget the things in life that you have lost when a disaster strikes.
    Whatever the situation that has brought you to thins point, you have to give yourself some time to heal and some ways to move past that loss, while knowing that there isn’t anything that can replace what you have lost aside from moving forward and creating some new visions for your future.
    I have personally never experienced anything like this so I hate to even give advice about it. But I would hope that if I ever do have a loss like this I will try to remember that if I am safe and my family is safe, that in the end this and your faith are the only things that you need.
    Material goods, homes those htings can be replaced. But family never can be.

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