In the previous months before we had hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria hit. Towns destroyed, people died and lives broken. The one thing unseen from the hurricanes’ destruction was the effect it had on the mental health of the survivors.
Before we get into the mental health of the hurricane survivors, let’s talk how psychological health fits within the context of the dangers that a hurricane brings.
- Before a hurricane, people’s stress, anxiety, and fear increase immensely and leads to people to hoarding emergency supplies by emptying supermarkets and drugstores within days. For instance, during Hurricane Sandy, there was such a decrease of supplies that one of the many reasons people visited the emergency room was to retrieve medications and other urgent medical supplies.
- During the hurricane, most injuries happen directly from the catastrophic influence of the hurricane. Roads and buildings are in shambles from the storms and flooding. The debris leads to injuries that can cause death, and other non-fatal injuries such as lacerations, falling, electric shock, and crush injuries. During Hurricane Katrina, The Louisiana Department of Health identified 971 Katrina—related deaths. 40% of the deaths were from drowning, and 25% were from injury and trauma.
- Right after a hurricane dies down, there is still physical injuries but it’s caused more by cleanup and restoration. At this stage, infectious diseases are more common such as norovirus, cholera, and non—typhoidal Salmonella. For example, the CDC reported an unusual peak of Human West Nile Virus in Katrina in affected areas weeks after Katrina happened.
- In the long term after a hurricane, the primary public health concern is the mental health of the affected populations. Psychological issues include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), chronic depression and anxiety, and addiction. Mental health is often unreported because symptoms are usually not expressed for weeks, if not months, after a traumatic event.
Not only do adults survivors’ mental health become affected by a hurricane, but also do children’s.
In Orocovis, Puerto Rico, six weeks after Hurricane Maria plowed through the town, local leaders have said they fear the hurricane will have a profound effect on the psychological well-being of the children. Orocovis’s MayorJesús Colón Berlingeri has said, “They [the children] don’t understand why their house doesn’t have water, why their house doesn’t have power, why it no longer has a roof.” He also added, “They need help.”
Irwin Redleaner, head of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, states that children who experience destructive storms are the most vulnerable to long-term mental health effects. He led a study after Hurricane Katrina that found that one—third of children have at least one mental health problem, but fewer than half their parents had access to services. Children in post—Katrina, were also 4 1/2 more times likely to have critical emotional disturbances in comparison to other children who were not affected by the storm.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Maria may have incited more issues, since the hurricane affected the whole island and many family members have been busy gathering basic needs such as food or water, that children’s needs may be overlooked.
Fortunately, there are strategies that survivors can use when dealing with mental stress from a hurricane. The first and most important thing that someone can do is to seek help when feeling overwhelmed. Second, is understanding that anxiety is a natural response to a hurricane and that stress is an innate response to evacuation. It’s still important to avoid using substances and other destructive habits to cope with anxiety. Third, is to have a high social support and to get back to a routine–which helps rewire the brain. Fourth, is to take care of your physical self by exercising and eating nutritious meals. Last, is that survivors can call Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMSA) Disaster Distress Hotline at 1-800-985-5990.