The flooding in Houston due to Hurricane Harvey will have many short-term and long-term health consequences, including injuries, mold-related allergies and respiratory problems, infectious disease, and mental health concerns. Following Hurricane Katrina, there is evidence of increases in depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts among survivors, and it’s been reported that mental health disorders in survivors of Katrina worsened over time and that some survivors continue to experience mental health problems related to the storm.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event such as a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s normal to have negative feelings and trouble sleeping or concentrating after experiencing a traumatic event, but most people start to feel better after a few weeks. Individuals diagnosed with PTSD can experience a range of symptoms such as distressing emotions, nightmares, avoidance of stimuli related to the event, loss of memory related to aspects of the event, difficulty sleeping, irritability, poor concentration, and an exaggerated startle response.
Recovery takes time and occurs at a person’s own pace. If individuals continue to experience distress after a few weeks, they should seek help from a trauma specialist, especially if they are:
- having trouble functioning at home, work, or school;
- suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression;
- experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks;
- avoiding more and more things that remind them of the trauma;
- emotionally numb and disconnected from others and relationships;
- using alcohol or drugs to feel better.
Resilience and Trauma
Not every person exposed to trauma will develop PTSD; it depends on how the event is perceived and other risk factors such as previous trauma or ongoing stress at the time of the trauma. In fact, there are many examples of resiliency among survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Survivors with strong social support networks were more likely to bounce back from their experience of trauma. Additionally, many reported experiencing “post-traumatic growth” or the feeling that surviving the disaster made them stronger. We can expect the same to be true for survivors of Hurricane Harvey, and inspiring stories are already emerging from Houston.
If you experience a traumatic incident, you can take care of yourself by following these recommendations:
- Practice stress management and relaxation techniques.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Practice health-promoting behaviors, such as eating well, sleeping regularly, and exercising in moderation.
- Engage in activities/hobbies you enjoy including social activities with friends and loved ones.
- Participate in your spiritual and faith based practices.
- Reestablish routines as soon as possible.
- Limit exposure to media reports and images about the traumatic event.
Engaging different sources of support such as contact with family, friend, and community resources as soon as possible following a disaster can improve recovery. There are many forms of social support including emotional support such as hugs and understanding, advice and information, physical assistance such as help fixing your house or completing paperwork, and material assistance such as food, clothing, and medicine.
Children and Trauma
We can expect children to exhibit some of the same signs of trauma as adults, and therefore we should help children cope with the aftermath of trauma by following the same recommendations noted above. In addition, the following guidelines are helpful:
- Reassure children that they are safe, but honestly discuss their fears.
- Offer children additional social support by spending more time with them.
- Give children permission to express their feelings, whatever they may be.
- Discuss the details of the trauma in developmentally appropriate language.
- Help children to understand and cope with “survivor’s guilt”.
- Engage children in activities they enjoy such as reading, drawing, music, sports, and other social activities.
- Seek professional help if signs of trauma (e.g., nightmares, acting out, crying, trouble sleeping, fear of separations, bed wetting) don’t subside.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network National Center for PTSD (2006). Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide, 2nd Edition. Retrieved from http://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/pfa/english/1-psyfirstaid_final_complete_manual.pdf
Reardon, S. (2015). Hurricane Katrina’s psychological scars revealed. Nature 524, 395–396. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/hurricane-katrina-s-psychological-scars-revealed-1.18234
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2016). PTSD: National Center for PTSD. Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/what-is-ptsd.asp
Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clarke is a clinical psychologist and retired psychology professor who has lived in Denver, Colorado for almost two decades. In the aftermath of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, Dr. Clarke was instrumental in developing and facilitating active shooter response and violence prevention training for all faculty and staff at Community College of Aurora (CCA). Dr. Clarke currently serves on CCA’s Behavioral Intervention Team and consults in the areas of mental health, classroom management, and safety.