5 Keys to Managing Mental Health after a Disaster

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — September 18, 2018 — 4 min read
After a serious disaster strikes, the first concern is addressing the physical destruction left in its wake. But what about the damage that we can’t see?

We know that natural disasters like Hurricane Florence can have real impacts on our mental health. Just like we take inventory of our physical safety and wellbeing, it’s critical to take care of our mental and emotional health after a crisis. We talked to two of our psychiatrists about the feelings and emotions that come after a natural disaster and how we can help ourselves or loved ones who may be affected.

Know what’s normal.

After a serious disaster, it is natural to experience a wide range of feelings and responses, says Dr. Winston Lane, Associate Medical Director at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare. “It’s important to normalize the typical experience following a natural disaster,” says Lane.  “Many emotions are normal, for example: anxiety, sadness, fear, shock, disbelief.”  

Although these responses are normal, they can still be difficult to manage. “We have to be mindful about the impact of psychological distress,” says Dr. Tedra Anderson-Brown, Medical Director with Cardinal Innovations Healthcare. “Just like taking care of our physical health – drinking water, getting exercise, washing our hands – we must be intentional about our mental health as well.” Make sure you’re finding healthy ways to cope, such as talking to friends or family, spending time with animals, joining support groups, or volunteering. If these emotions persist over an extended period of time or begin to affect your ability to function in daily life, it may be time to seek professional help.
 

Recognize who is at risk.

There are several key groups that are at increased risk for experiencing mental health symptoms following a crisis. “It’s important to recognize who might be most affected after a natural disaster,” says Anderson-Brown.  “We know that children, people who experience loss, and people who have existing mental health conditions are at an increased risk for experiencing symptoms. It’s important that they understand help is available from a variety of sources.”

People who are displaced after a disaster are also at risk. “Displacement means more than the loss of a home. Oftentimes displacement can mean the loss of a job, community, or support system,” says Lane. A 2017 study showed that people who were displaced after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 were more likely to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.
 

Find balance.

There will probably be physical reminders of the destruction around long after the disaster strikes. Similarly, there will be ongoing reporting on the aftermath of the disaster, which can be harmful. “It’s important to recognize the direct and indirect exposure,” says Anderson-Brown. “There is a balance between being informed and overexposure. The chronic constant exposure (to news about the disaster) can be very impactful, especially on children and people with special needs. Make sure you’re staying informed but also taking time to step away.”
 

When in doubt, reach out.

It’s critical to stay tuned in to the emotional wellbeing of your friends and family who’ve been affected by the disaster. “We know that there are people who might try to hide their emotions,” says Lane. The number of calls to Puerto Rico’s suicide hotline more than doubled just four months after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017. “A phone call or text just to ask how someone is doing in the days, weeks and months after a disaster can make a difference.”
 

Educate yourself on available resources.

  • RX Open: find open pharmacies after a disaster
  • Helping Children After a Disaster: American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) Disaster Resource Center
  • Hurricane Resources: National Child Traumatic Stress Network
  • Emotional Recovery Resources: American Red Cross
  • Recovering Emotionally from a Disaster: American Psychological Association
  • The American Red Cross Disaster Distress Helpline is available 24/7 at 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746
  • Local Resources: search for local resources by your zip code, or call 2-1-1 to speak with someone
  • Cardinal Innovations Access Call Center is available 24/7 for mental health crisis or referral at 1-800-939-5911
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255
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