I have recently spoken to several people who have returned to the west coast after having unfortunately traveled back east just as Hurricane Sandy hit. As one person recounted his experience I could literally see the terror in his eyes. It was the uncertainty that seemed particularly daunting. How long would it last? When would the power come back on? How bad would the damage ultimately be? These people were fortunate to return home where life resumed as normal. For those who live in the hurricane ravaged areas the nightmare continues.
As the tally in financial, and more importantly human, loss rises in the aftermath of Sandy it is difficult to estimate the actual psychological damage that has been done to those who have lived through this natural disaster. There has been a great deal of effort in the mental health community over the past few decades to understand just how natural disasters affect people in both short and long term ways.
Survivors of various natural disasters often report symptoms following the event such as recurrent nightmares, feelings of panic, flashbacks, and volatility. These are generally feelings we associate with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is a fairly typical response to a experiencing a traumatic event. Over time, for most of the survivors, the symptoms abated and they were able to move on. For others, the feelings persisted and evolved into disabling mental health issues.
What researchers and clinicians have determined is that the psychological aftermath of natural disasters is largely dependent upon the general response from government and community services. Previous studies have shown that the people who tend to suffer long-term psychological effects are those that spend an extended period of time worried about subsistence level needs such as food and shelter. The sooner life returns to some sort of normalcy the better the outcome in all areas, including psychological.
The response to this disaster was a relatively quick, so many experts are predicting that the psychological fallout will not be as great as it was from Katrina, but there are bound to be emotional casualties. The more each community bands together to take care of one another the easier it will be for people to begin to feel safe again. The rebuilding needs to involve not only bricks and mortar but also confidences.
Currently all efforts need to be focused on rebuilding, and re-situating those who have been displaced, but in the coming months and years the emotional toll of the devastation will become more apparent. It is my hope that every effort will be made by mental health professionals and other healthcare workers in those areas to counsel those who are suffering from the very real psychological damage that can be the result of a natural disaster.
My heart goes out to all of the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
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