Mind Matters — Natural Disasters Can Have Long-Term Emotional Consequences for Many

Americans and the world were appalled at the scenes on TV that captured our attention in the first days of Hurricane Katrina (and Rita soon after). We were horrified to see fellow citizens bereft of care, not having even water, clinging to life on rooftops, being terrorized in “shelters” lacking in safety or sustenance. Senior citizens and babies dying, the most helpless and needy seemingly forgotten, evacuees stymied in there escape when a whole town refused them entry.

These images even for us at a distance can be haunting and frightening. Consider then how the victims and the first responders (such as police and rescue teams—especially the emergency workers who were victims themselves) will fare in the wake of such catastrophe.

The National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorders reports that studies after Hurricane Andrew and other disasters showed that long-term emotional consequences of disaster are related to survivors’ thoughts and beliefs.

Emotional recovery from disaster is made more difficult when people think they are uncared for by others, have little control over what happens to them, or lack stress management skills. It was also found that important influences in recovery were subsequent life stress and social support from others. The last thing traumatized victims need is the lack of support of others—family and community. We are indeed social beings who need supportive relationships and connections with others.

Researchers note three phases of reaction to disaster. During the impact phase, people react to protect their lives and the lives of others. (It’s not “looting” to go in to a grocery store or K-Mart to get water, diapers, clothes, or sneakers: it’s down and out survival mode.) During the impact phase, however, some people may not be able to protect themselves and can become disorganized, helpless, stunned.

The second phase is the immediate post-disaster period of recoil and rescue: recoil from the impact and the start of rescue activities. During this time, people may experience numbness, nightmares, flashbacks, anger, despair, sadness, hopelessness, denial.

Unfortunately, many of the victims of Katrina experienced a protracted impact phase and the rescue phase itself was marred with further trauma—children being separated from parents, pets left behind, people being sent to unknown destinations.

The recovery phase is the long period of adjustment and coming to some semblance of normalcy. Immediately following a disaster, there may even be a “honeymoon” time, reports disaster researcher Dr. Beverly Raychael. This is a time when there is an outpouring of community response, attention and care. However, disillusionment follows: when the media spotlight shines elsewhere and national and community response dwindle. The realities of loss, and the tangle of bureaucratic red tape, settle in. We may not see or hear about the disaster victims, but they can still suffer effects long after.

Sometimes the effects don’t appear to be emotional. Instead, they become expressed in other ways: in stress-related medical conditions, alcohol and substance abuse, acting out behavior (particularly in children and adolescents), work difficulties, and sleep problems.

The Katrina catastrophe has just about every red flag imaginable for prolonged emotional hardship. Not only was there extensive loss of property, but there was a sense of panic and horror, separation from family, life threat and relocation. Stress in stricken communities lasts long after the disaster has occurred and in the case of Katrina even the ability to return as a community is lost for many.

What victims may need most is the sense that they are survivors who can eventually become thrivers.

Part of the survivors’ belief in their own coping skills is hinged on their perception that others care about them. They need to feel that they are not alone and that help will be available.

We do indeed need to support one another in confronting life’s tragedies, even when—or perhaps especially when—they are no longer images on our TV screen.