Disaster Mental Health

Disasters of all kinds cause physical damage and destruction to properties and lives, but often an even larger and unspoken problem is the mental scars they leave on victims. The mental or emotional trauma of coming through a disaster can leave a lasting impact that lingers for years after the event itself.

If someone has already experienced a traumatic event, they can become more susceptible and less resilient to future traumas. For example, those who experienced Hurricane Sandy may be coping with heightened emotional strain and anxiety in the event of a second hurricane or natural disaster.

Director of Counseling Services for Catholic Charities, Licensed Clinical Social Worker Sylvia Loumeau, offers the following tips for those experiencing mental health issues during a disaster and their loved ones.

Coping with the stress of a disaster

  • Be mindful and breathe. It’s a physical response that our breathing becomes short when we’re stressed. This means there is less oxygen going to the brain, which prevents us from thinking as clearly and making the best possible decisions. Sit, take breaths, and notice what’s happening in your body. If your heart is racing or your breathing is shallow, take some deep breaths and try to relax.
  • Store up on basic necessities, like food and water. Get plenty of sleep and have a plan in mind for heat, shelter, and people you can call for support. Being prepared helps minimize the stress of feeling out of control or powerless.
  • Find someone to talk to. Make sure you’re talking about what you’re feeling with a trusted love one or confidante who will validate your feelings while helping to put your fears in perspective.

Talking to people who are experiencing mental health issues related to a disaster

  • Remain calm and speak softly. When people who are anxious or excited hear a soft, monotone, soothing voice they tend to respond in kind.
  • Validate their feelings. Especially if someone has experienced trauma before, the worst thing you can say is “it’s going to be okay” or “it’s not going to be that bad,” because they have evidence from their experience that says it can be that bad. Validate for them that it makes sense to be worried or afraid.
  • Ask simple questions. It can be helpful to simply ask your loved one what’s concerning them or what their fears are. Bringing those out in the open may help them see that what they’re afraid of is something that can be resolved.
  • Form a plan with your loved one. Having a plan in mind or thinking through how you will respond to a crisis can be very calming. For example, help them think through a frightening scenario like a power outage, and each step that they will take in that event to get through it. This will help them to see that their worst fear isn’t insurmountable.
  • Help your loved one prepare. People become traumatized when they feel like they are powerless over a situation or have lost control. Helping them prepare and plan for the situation helps to reduce the unknown. Help your loved one store supplies, have cash or gas on hand, build an emergency kit, or fortify their home so that they feel prepared.
  • Take care of yourself. Make sure that you are getting enough sleep, maintaining a proper diet and taking care of yourself in general so that you have the emotional resources to be available to others. If you know that you have a family member who’s more susceptible to a new trauma, you can’t be useful to them if you yourself are emotionally, mentally or physically drained.