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Taking Care of Emotional Health After a Hurricane

As predicted, we are in the midst of an active and destructive hurricane season. Hurricanes Florence and Michael have inflicted catastrophic losses in the Carolinas, neighboring states and the Florida Panhandle. Like last year, when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit parts of Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, many people have had their homes and businesses severely damaged or destroyed.

As they begin the exhausting and often overwhelming process of cleaning up and rebuilding, people in these communities are also encountering other health threats such as mold, electrical hazards and standing water. But even after flood waters recede, debris is removed and electricity is restored, people can suffer from mental health effects directly related to or aggravated by a natural disaster.

Studies on large-scale disasters indicate that the elderly, children, people with chronic medical conditions and people with mental disabilities are particularly vulnerable in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. However, all residents are at risk for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Research finds that between 30 and 40 percent of victims exposed to hurricanes and other disasters develop PTSD, which is diagnosed when symptoms of trauma last more than a month. In addition to exacerbating physical illness, PTSD can also affect how people function in their jobs and personal relationships and how quickly a community recovers from a hurricane. Mental health issues related to hurricane fallout don’t always appear right away and can also affect people for years.

Effects of Lingering Hurricane Trauma

As we’ve learned in the aftermaths of catastrophic storms like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, marked changes in community mental health occur and evolve in the days, weeks and even months following these events. After Hurricane Maria, calls to Puerto Rico’s suicide hotline skyrocketed. Unfortunately, this is not an anomaly. For example, a study of areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina found that PTSD and other mental health conditions worsened over time, with the proportion of people experiencing suicidal thoughts doubling in the year after the storm. While not everyone experiences such extreme despair, given the magnitude of damage hurricanes can inflict, from the infrastructure of an entire community to the displacement of individuals and their families and friends, it’s not surprising that victims often feel distress.

“[T]he more events or the more things that happened to you during [the hurricane] … the more likely you were to experience higher levels of depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms, perceived stress and PTSD symptoms,” said Rebecca Schwartz, an investigator who looked at the effects of Superstorm Sandy on mental health among adults living in New York.

But PTSD and other common symptoms of trauma can also affect people whose homes and businesses were not damaged. Escaping disaster when your neighbors did not can lead to survivor’s guilt that sometimes can be just as traumatic as losing all of your possessions and can make it difficult to ask for help.

Experiencing a hurricane or other violent storm is a stressful event. Feeling anxious or depressed is natural. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recommends keeping informed about new information and developments, but avoiding overexposure to news rebroadcasts of the events and being sure that the outlets providing this information are credible. The APA also recommends learning what local resources are available to assist those affected by the disaster and sharing this information with others. It’s also helpful to talk to friends, family or colleagues who are likely experiencing similar feelings of anxiety and depression. If you have children, encourage them to talk about their fears and anxieties and assure them this situation will improve. But if your feelings are affecting your ability to carry out your responsibilities, it’s important to seek professional help. Whether it’s trauma related to a hurricane or another experience, treatment can help you recover.

Check to see if you have access to a Member Assistance Program (MAP) through your employer or LIUNA health and welfare fund. Additional resources may also be available through your Local Union or your community.

Resources If You Need Help

  • The Disaster Assistance Improvement Program (DAIP) provides disaster survivors with information specific to their community, including how to find hotels participating in transitional sheltering, support services and the means to access and apply for disaster assistance.
  • The National Dislocated Worker Grant provides funding to assist people in North Carolina, Florida and Georgia who are unable to work due to destruction caused by Hurricanes Florence and Michael.
  • More information about coping after a disaster is available here.
  • If mental health assistance is not readily available, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Hotline at:
    • 1-800-985-5990
    • Text TalkWithUs to 66746
  • If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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