Our human relationship with nature is somewhat of an enigma; it seems impossible to decipher whose impact is greater. We are able to tame and sculpt nature, altering it to match our needs. We shift the course of gigantic rivers, upbraid forests, and transform arid prairies into green metropolises. Our behaviors deplete the ozone, impact global temperatures, and dabble with finely tuned weather patterns, and yet the entire entity of Nature is beyond our reach. We still remain at Nature’s mercy. The tragic 2010 earthquake in Haiti starkly demonstrates this reality.
So how does a severe natural disaster like Haiti’s earthquake impact the psyche of the survivors? Fortunately, the field of natural disaster psychology has studied past calamities and puts forth some answers to this question. Unfortunately, the psychological impact can be quite wounding and pervasive.
It will come as no surprise that extreme anxiety and depressive reactions are common in survivors following a natural disaster. Often times the closer the survivor was to the epicenter and the more destruction the survivor witnessed (such as witnessing the collapse of a building), the more extreme the emotional reaction is. When this destruction includes witnessing the destruction of human life—i.e. hearing the screams of individuals trapped underneath rubble, seeing shorn off body parts, or watching failed rescue efforts, etc.—the likelihood that the survivor will develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) increases dramatically.
For children who witness these events there is an added layer of fear. Many children who witness and survive such events develop increased fears of being separated from their loved ones/caregivers. This fear makes complete sense and is rather rational. The child has witnessed utter chaos and so needs to be physically close to her or his source of stability, the proverbial epicenter of her or his world. Not only does seeking out proximity to her or his caregiver provide emotional security, but it can also help ensure physical survival during any future aftershocks, collapses, or calamities.
It is also common for children to develop more and new fears (such as a fear of any rumbling sound or tall buildings), physical complaints (such as tummy aches, being sore or tired), and regress to a manner more typical for a younger child (returning to thumb sucking or baby talk). If a child experiences the death or loss of a loved one or friend, then grief and depression (versus anxiety and PTSD) tend to be the dominant responses.
Regardless of the dominant response—fear/anxiety based or depression/grief/sadness based—the severity of life-threatening situations following the natural disaster has profound impact upon the psychological wellbeing of both children and adults. If, in addition to the destruction and horror of the natural disaster, one has to fear for one’s survival or exert heroic efforts to remain safe, then the psychological toll of the disaster is magnified. This is one of the reasons why the problems the international community had in entering Haiti were so talked about and criticized. The longer it took for relief and relief workers to enter Haiti, the longer the survivors had to fight for and fear for their survival and safety.
Some experts point out that the accumulation of a survivor’s exposure to death and destruction is the biggest predictor of negative psychological impact. This concept is termed the dose-of-exposure curve and predicts that people in the most destroyed parts of Haiti will have the most severe (negative) psychological consequences.
Finally, just as the degree of destruction, death, and the un-gluing of society negatively impacts a survivor, the ability for survivors to join together and work towards survival, safety, meaning, purpose and even fleeting specks of harmony and beauty can begin the healing process, allowing for the resiliency within humans to shine forth.
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