• Jiwoo Jeong

The Psychological Aftermath


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The effect of a natural disaster is more often than not expressed in terms of damage done to tangible matter. What people fail to take into consideration is the emotional and psychological toll that disasters have. People tend to shy away from discussing the topic of mental health due to the stigma that society has imposed. Our beliefs are shaped by what we see and hear. Thus, the media’s frequent misportrayal and negative connotation towards mental health bring about “fears and misunderstanding” surrounding this topic [1]. As global citizens, we must work to shed light on the reality of unavertable emotional scarring that comes with disaster situations and learn how to provide a stable social network for the victims. This article is most definitely not a critique of society’s primary focus being rebuilding infrastructure as a post-disaster management. Rather, it is an attempt to portray a glimpse into the emotional aftermath of natural disasters — to understand the scope of the damage beyond what meets the eye.

Many professionals in the mental health field agree that depression and anxiety are caused by “life events and [the] environment” [2] and if these symptoms continue for weeks to months, “they may indicate a more serious psychological issue” [3]. This could be observed for the states hit by Hurricane Katrina (Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi) where post-traumatic stress disorder prevalence rose from 14.9% to 20.9% and individuals with suicidal thoughts increased from 2.8 % to 6.4 % [4]. This goes to show that aside from the physical scars, emotional scars are just as damaging and should be treated with importance. In order to cope with the internal trauma, many turn towards the use of substances to emotionally numb them and dissociate themselves from the situation. However, it has been stated that children who reported substance use were likely to “have lower grades, problems with schoolwork and to misbehave at school” [5]. Furthermore, substance abusers develop further problems due to their addiction and abuse which add to the existing complications. Studies analyzing the psychological effects Hurricane Katrina had on those who had been displaced from Houston, Texas saw that approximately a third of them increased their substance use [6] and domestic abuse rates were reported to have increased [7]. Clearly, natural disasters can induce negative social behaviors.

It is also important to realize that disasters affect all age groups. However, children and elderly are classified as the age group with the highest vulnerability to develop mental health problems, as they are by nature, very dependent on other people [8]. Mental health professionals should be on the lookout — especially for children — as trauma is a “very powerful predictor of serious problems like experiencing psychotic events in adult life” [9]. It is important that trauma for children is mitigated early on through psychological first aid, which is a technique that reduces the chances of developing post traumatic disorder, in order to ensure that they do not face further mental health complications in the future due to their shocking experience. Likewise, cognitive behavioural therapy —a very common form of therapy done with psychologists for all age groups —may help children who want to learn how to better manage their stress. Thus, it can be seen that disasters do as much damage to the mind as they do to physical matter. A building is not reconstructed through a single step: same goes for the reconstruction of the damaged mind. Just as the foundation of the building is first established, victims must first locate the root cause of their suffering and work towards understanding the reason why they are suffering and strive to overcome it. It is crucial that we assist victims in their onerous rehabilitation process.

In order to help these victims, first we must understand that normalizing mental health issues after a disaster is unacceptable. As a way to reassure others, we usually mitigate their negative outlook on life by trivializing their circumstance and calling it a “phase”. However, this is detrimental to one’s recovery process as it is categorized as negative social support: “minimizing problems or needs, unrealistic expectations regarding recovery, playing down a person's pain … [are strongly correlated] to long-term post-trauma distress” [10]. Instead of society waiting for the victims to recover, we must take initiative and actively partake a role in assisting their recovery process. This could be done in various forms of support, but primarily through emotional encouragement, understanding, and acceptance.

Furthermore, one’s recovery process should never be compared to that of someone else; it is unfair to expect two people to have the same rate of recuperation as no two people are subject to the same lifestyle and circumstance. Each person’s individuality dictates whether or not they may develop psychiatric disorders. One study suggests that one’s recovery is dependent on the presence of social support, ongoing disruptions, psychological resources, and one’s socioeconomic status [11]. These all factor into the composition of individual resiliency. The disaster may affect an aspect of one’s life which triggers insurmountable grief. This could be due to the loss of prized possessions, being displaced from their homes, losing their jobs or families, or both. We must respect what is held valuable to each individual and never patronize others for grieving over what we perceive as not worth of value to us: individual importance is subjective.

There are the four fundamental attitudes and actions to avoid in the form of the acronym “STOP”, proposed by the Canadian Mental Health Association, to reduce the stigma against mental health/illness. STOP stands for stereotyping people with mental health conditions; trivializing the people suffering or the condition itself; offending the people or the condition; patronizing people with mental health and degrading their self-worth [12].

In order to help the evacuees seek treatment and induce their healing process, as a society, we can reduce the stigma around mental illness and lend a helping hand to those who need it — this will make it easier for victims to reach out for help through various resources. Most importantly, we must be supportive and help guide the road to healing. Victims should also be aware that they are not alone. There are resources such as therapy, counselling, and visits to psychologists and professionals that could help their healing.

In comparison to the presence of emergency hotlines, there is a definite lack of in-person, interactive support initiatives — aside from traditional professionals such as psychiatrists, counsellors, therapists, psychologists. The mental health sector of healthcare in Canada is notorious for its arduous process just to be referred to a psychiatrist for a proper diagnosis. I have relentlessly heard of individuals who seek mental health treatment giving up due to irregularities in appointments or more commonly, the surge of appointments that back one’s wait-time to months. Most hotlines existing for suicide prevention in conjunction with the overflow in appointments, drive individuals away from seeking for help. There needs to be support groups established within schools and communities, guided by mental health professionals, that could help those wanting to overcome their trauma, grief, and hardship.

[1] "Mental Health Information." CMHA Ontario. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://ontario.cmha.ca/documents/stigma-and-discrimination/.

[2] Knapton, Sarah. "Mental illness mostly caused by life events not genetics, argue psychologists." The Telegraph. March 28, 2016. Accessed October 17, 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/03/28/mental-illness-mostly-caused-by-life-events-not-genetics-argue-p/.

[3] Houston, J. Brian, and Jennifer M. First. "The mental health impact of major disasters like Harvey and Irma." Salon. September 14, 2017. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://www.salon.com/2017/09/15/the-mental-health-impact-of-major-disasters-like-harvey-and-irma_partner/.

[4]Kessler, Ronald C., Sandro Galea, Michael J. Gruber, Nancy A. Sampson, Robert J. Ursano, and Simon Wessely. "Trends in mental illness and suicidality after Hurricane Katrina." Molecular psychiatry 13, no. 4 (2008): 374.

[5]Szalavitz, Maia. "How We Cope: What Do Addiction Rates After 9/11 Tell Us?" Time. September 09, 2011. Accessed October 24, 2017. http://healthland.time.com/2011/09/09/how-we-cope-what-addiction-and-recovery-rates-after-911-tell-us/.

[6]Cepeda, Alice, Avelardo Valdez, Charles Kaplan, and Larry E. Hill. "Patterns of substance use among hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston, Texas." Disasters 34, no. 2 (2010): 426-446.

[7] Houston, J. Brian, and Jennifer M. First. "The mental health impact of major disasters like Harvey and Irma." Salon. September 14, 2017. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://www.salon.com/2017/09/15/the-mental-health-impact-of-major-disasters-like-harvey-and-irma_partner/.

[8] Rao, TS Sathyanarayana. "Managing impact of natural disasters: some mental health issues." Indian journal of psychiatry 46, no. 4 (2004): 289.

[9] Knapton, Sarah. "Mental illness mostly caused by life events not genetics, argue psychologists." The Telegraph. March 28, 2016. Accessed October 17, 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/03/28/mental-illness-mostly-caused-by-life-events-not-genetics-argue-p/.

[10] "PTSD: National Center for PTSD." Mental Health Effects following Disaster: Risk and Resilience Factors - PTSD: National Center for PTSD. March 16, 2011. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/effects-disasters-mental-health.asp.

[11] Rao, TS Sathyanarayana. "Managing impact of natural disasters: some mental health issues." Indian journal of psychiatry 46, no. 4 (2004): 289.

[12] "Mental Health Information." CMHA Ontario. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://ontario.cmha.ca/documents/stigma-and-discrimination/.


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