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Mental Health in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey: Spotting and Dealing with Problems

Sept. 26, 2017 at midnight

Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey bring devastation to everyone and everything in their path. Damage like destroyed homes, physical injury, and even death are obvious, but such events also have an impact that is more difficult to see. These phenomena can leave survivors plagued by guilt, anxiety, or depression that could last a lifetime. Learning to recognize symptoms of these mental issues in ourselves and others is crucial. It's the first step toward proper treatment and restoration of mental health.

The stress of a natural disaster begins before it even happens. We spend money on supplies to protect our homes. We buy extra food and water to physically sustain ourselves in case our homes are destroyed. Shock during the actual disaster turns to post-traumatic syndrome (PTSD), sadness, and anger in its aftermath. Helplessness sets in as we deal with a loss of some of life's most basic necessities like shelter and food. Guilt sets in when we have to ask others for help. We may also feel guilty because our home suffered less damage than the homes of neighbors, family, or friends. The financial stress increases after the disaster if physical injury or damage to infrastructure keeps us from reporting to work. It's possible that our employer won't be able to re-open for business for weeks or months. Rebuilding our home or finding somewhere else to live can trigger crying out of the blue and nightmares. The stress of living for days and weeks without electricity or water can be difficult to handle. Undrinkable water and scarce fuel put us under a strain we've never known. New clothes, personal care items, furniture, and more all cost money. The anticipation of the cost of rebuilding our lives often triggers depression. It sometimes even leads to suicide.

These are all valid reasons for high levels of stress. It's no wonder that victims of natural disasters develop anxiety and depression. These emotions are natural and expected following such events, but it's important that we don't suffer alone and let a short-term struggle become a lifelong issue. We must turn to one another during times of shared trauma and lean on other survivors who understand us in a way that those outside the reach of the disaster can't.

Here are some of the symptoms we need to watch for in ourselves and others.

  • Intense and unpredictable feelings like irritability, mood swings, and anxiety
  • Flashbacks accompanied by physical reactions like sweating and rapid heartbeat • Confusion or trouble making decisions
  • Problems with eating or sleeping
  • Fear that the natural disaster will happen again
  • Relationship problems like avoiding others or being easily angered by others
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, chest pain, and nausea

Dealing with these symptoms involves avoiding isolation and opening up about how we're feeling. Here are some specific things we can do or encourage others to do when dealing with the mental struggle often experienced following a natural disaster.

  • Talk about it with others who went through the same disaster. These conversations remind us that we aren't alone in how we feel.
  • Spend time with friends and family. Support each other. Encourage open discussion with children and adults. • Limit the amount of time we watch TV coverage of the disaster. Repeated viewing only reinforces our stress. • Do something positive like helping a neighbor with a repair or some other task. This gives us a sense of purpose and helps reduce our feelings of hopelessness.
  • Resist the temptation to consume drugs or alcohol for temporary relief. It's too easy for this to turn into drug or alcohol abuse during periods of such high stress.
  • Be physically active. Hitting a punching bag, running, or performing any physical activity are great, healthy ways to release pent-up emotions.

While a feeling of hopelessness is expected in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, we must take steps to work through the negativity. If symptoms above continue for a month or more, it's time to seek professional help. We have to do what we can to work through the mental wounds of natural disasters and return to a healthy and productive life.


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