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After Disasters, Survivors Now Face Struggle with Mental Health

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

Natural disasters around the world have had an enormous impact on countless people in the past few months. From the earthquake and tsunami in Japan to the many tornadoes and rising flood waters in America, the lives of many have been negatively effected. In addition to the extremely visible physical destruction, underneath lies much emotional devastation as well. Mental illness, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, can develop after a traumatic event. It is vital to receive appropriate care as soon as possible.

Struggles Still Linger in Japan

Although the water from the tsunami has receded and the aftershocks have almost stopped, the piles of destruction still remain. These are the constant, cruel reminders that the struggle to return to normalcy is far from over. But there are other signs, ones not visible to a casual bystander, that some survivors may have to contend with for years after homes have been reconstructed.

The effects of a traumatic natural disaster can have longstanding effects, especially for those who were witness to the most severe parts of the event. A study published this past April in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease found that tourists who were exposed most directly to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami have taken longer than their peers to recover psychologically.

The study revealed that 98 percent of those with a low level of exposure demonstrated a “resilient” response, but only 77 percent of those who had more significant levels of exposure did. Additionally, researchers found that 43 percent of those who had lost a loved one experienced mental health issues. Findings also revealed the importance of social support in helping the remission of symptoms.

While these results do make sense—individuals affected most by the event will experience greater degrees of trauma—it unfortunately means that those who have lost the most, will continue to suffer the most in the coming years.

The Cabinet Office of Japan recently released its annual policy paper on suicide prevention, including a separate section on the psychological needs of disaster victims. Japan, a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, has stepped up efforts to provide support for individuals experiencing psychological trauma.

The Japanese Red Cross stated that mental health is a “major concern,” and is increasing the number of caregivers and psychosocial support teams working in evacuation centers.

With more than 23,000 people dead or missing after the tsunami, there stands to be a substantial population of friends and family that will experience substantial effects of mental illness.

Mounting Disasters at Home

Throughout the middle of the United States over the past few months numerous storms have wreaked havoc on the lives of many families. Like Japan, the storms and physical effects of the disasters are only the beginning to the struggle that many of those affected will face.

To help combat the effects of PTSD, organizations in the affected states have begun to administer psychological first aid. For example, the Alabama Department of Mental Health and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have partnered to activate Project Rebound, a federally funded program agencies use to assist residents when a natural disaster occurs, to help provide support to the families affected by the deadly tornadoes that ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27.

In Joplin, Mo., where a powerful tornado killed 153 people, injured hundreds of others and destroyed thousands of homes on May 22, the state has noted the importance of providing support to their stricken community and begun to act accordingly. Missouri is providing funds to help establish a children’s trauma center in Joplin to help youths managing with mental health issues in the wake of the devastating tornado. The state Department of Mental Health said that the Joplin area is seeing a significant increase in both mental health needs for children and adults.

The state agency also said there has been an increase in patients coming to hospital emergency rooms with psychiatric symptoms and there appears to be a rise in court-ordered commitments for people who pose a danger to themselves or others and there have already been two suicides related to the tornado.

The effects of PTSD are not necessarily from sudden events that rise up quickly without notice. The flooding occurring up and down the Mississippi this spring has also produced devastating effects, even if it not as violent as a tornado. Although precautions can be put in place, and barriers constructed to stop, or at least delay the rising waters, PTSD is still a very real concern.

For those who are displaced from their homes, for an undetermined amount of time, the anxiety of when they will be able to return, and even if they are able to return, continues to escalate.

Essential to recovery, psychiatrists say, is social support. In all of these disasters, members of communities are forced to live in shelters until their homes become habitable again, if they ever do. While there is certainly distress from having to live in a shelter, a shelter can also provide a means where members of a community can provide help and support for one another.

Read more about PTSD in the new Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Brochure or the NAMI website.

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