Emotional Health

Harvey and Beyond: Coping with Disaster

While as a rule children are more flexible and resilient than adults, they are also more vulnerable. Special attention needs to be paid to their needs after a disaster. The Atlantic reports,

“Researchers found that some children became more aggressive after experiencing Hurricane Katrina, which severely damaged 110 of the city’s 126 public schools and resulted in the complete reorganization of New Orleans’s education system. In a separate study surveying children during the 2006-07 school year (the first complete academic year after Katrina), researchers demonstrated that disasters can have a chronic, long-term effect on youth.”

As with any kind of traumatic event, the effects of the hurricane will be felt most sharply by the most vulnerable: the poor, the infirm, the elderly, and the mentally ill. As for children, the research shows, “the severity of the disaster’s impact on individual children was directly correlated with the stability of their broader environment.” That also means, however, that if you and your family were coping well before the disaster, chances are better for your recovery.

Being hopeful is difficult, but not impossible. Many victims describe themselves as “lucky” that things weren’t worse. Feeling that help is on the way and that plans are in motion is important, and you can remind yourself of this at times of weakness. Again, Hurricane Katrina provides some lessons. The Washington Post reports,

“Ronald C. Kessler, a professor at Harvard Medical School, studied the long-term psychological effects on Hurricane Katrina victims. Humans are resilient, and many do recover from their immediate grief, but he found the number of people reporting post-traumatic stress, depression and suicidal ideation increased as time passed and life didn’t resume normalcy.

“Most of the mental health problems we found, most of the long term issues after Katrina had to do with things like trying to go back to my house and electricity is still out 12 months later,” Kessler said. “There was hope in the short term, the community pulls together, politicians give speeches and then reality sets in . . . that kind of nagging, dragging feeling leads to depression and despair. People give up hope: ‘Is it ever going to be better?’”

Finally, victims need to reach out and seek professional help whenever possible. Even the strongest people have difficulty coping when their whole world gets turned upside down, and there is no shame in seeking help. It is often a sign of strength, in fact, when someone can recognize that he or she needs a helping hand and reach for it.  Dr. Kessler contacted “Talkspace,” an online therapy site, and encouraged them to open up a support line for Hurricane victims, which they did.

Hard as it may be right now, remember that there is growth and change possible in response to every event, even negative ones. Some psychologists believe that setbacks are essential to learning “grit” and resilience, qualities found to be highly linked to success in life. Dr. Rhodes’s “research showed a promising trend. Many Katrina survivors reported “post-traumatic growth.” Even if they had experienced mental distress, they simultaneously expressed feelings of gratitude and a renewed appreciation for life.”

I have found this to be true many times when people are confronted with a life-threatening event, such as a disaster or illness. They report a renewed or wholly new sense of what is important in life, as well as having profound feelings of gratitude for their gifts and the love of their family. Meanwhile, those of us who are safe and dry should lend a hand to our Texas neighbors. Remember, we may have our own disaster soon enough.

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