The psychological toll of disaster

Wellness
Distraught woman

Hurricanes like Florence can bring more than just physical destruction.
For weeks, our region has been under strain, first in anticipation of the storm’s arrival, then as it made landfall and now as floodwaters inundate roads, homes and businesses – particularly in Horry County.
“These kind of events don’t just damage belongings, they can take a serious psychological toll, too,” said Renee Shore, who manages the Tidelands Health Employee Assistance Program and is certified in critical incident stress management, an intervention process developed to help others following traumatic events. “Those kinds of impacts can continue long after the rains, wind and flooding have ended.”
The stress of disasters can have a range of impacts on people, Shore said. Some people may, at least initially, cope well, while others may struggle with anxiety, difficulty sleeping, an increased sense of sadness and other responses.
“In the span of only a few days, lives can be entirely upended,” Shore said. “People might evacuate from a storm or flooding and return to find themselves without a place to live or work.”
Indeed, studies have repeatedly demonstrated the psychological toll of disasters. Research conducted in areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina, for example, found significant increases in the number of people experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts, even a year later.
Most people will recover naturally over time, Shore said. Strong support from family and friends can help, and it’s important to get enough sleep, exercise and eat well.
However, for some people, the strain of dealing with a disaster can exacerbate existing mental health conditions or lead to new ones. People may feel marginalized, increase their drug and alcohol use and struggle with chronical irritability.
When the symptoms interfere with personal relationships or daily life, it’s time to seek help, Shore said.
“Don’t hesitate to seek professional support if you are feeling overwhelmed or depressed,” she said. “You aren’t alone.”
One option is for people to call or text the Disaster Distress Hotline offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The multilingual, confidential phone line is manned by crisis counselors who can offer support and guide callers to local resources.
To reach out to one of the counselors, call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.

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