How Natural Disasters and PTSD Can Leave People Emotionally Torn Apart

By David Heitz

Long thought just a soldier’s burden, today more and more people are learning that PTSD can affect anyone. This includes assault survivors, parents who have lost a child (or vice versa) and even victims of natural disasters.

Flooded streetAs communities become ravaged by floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, extreme heat and other deadly, devastating weather events, researchers are drilling down into the mental health effects of the aftermath.

While doctors and scientists begin studying population samples from Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, mental health advocates and professional organizations are doing some disaster preparedness.

The idea is that climate change could cause an increase in future catastrophic events, so it’s past time to be ready for the trails of trauma that severe weather inevitably will create in years to come.

In March, the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica, an environmental advocacy group, published a report, “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implication and Guidance.”

Wild Weather Impairing Our Mental Health

The report sounds an urgent alarm that climate change is going to severely impact the mental health of our planet.

The report explains how we can all save our mental health – and the planet – by taking some simple steps (literally). Walking and using public transportation reduces your carbon footprint and increases physical activity, which in turn is good for your mental health.

But beyond that, “Psychological factors (like psychological distance), a political divide, uncertainty, helplessness, and denial influence the way people comprehend information and form their beliefs on climate change,” the executive summary states. “Research on the impacts of climate change on human well-being is particularly important given the relationship among understanding, experiencing, and comprehending climate change.

“People’s willingness to support and engage in climate solutions is likely to increase if they can relate them to local experiences or if they see the relevance to their own health and well-being.”1

So as people in our own country suffer with PTSD after Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, the debate in our own country over climate change likely adds insult to injury to natural disaster survivors struggling to pick up the pieces.

Weather Events Have Already Traumatized the U.S.

The report states that some people suffering from PTSD and other mental health problems after natural disasters turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.

“Major acute mental health impacts include increases in trauma and shock, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compounded stress, anxiety, substance abuse and depression,” according to published research, and “Major chronic mental health impacts include higher rates of aggression and violence, more mental health emergencies, an increased sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or fatalism, and intense feelings of loss,” according to the report.

Such feelings are natural after losing your home, belongings and maybe even your loved ones.

Extreme weather already has left a path of mental distress in our nation. Some examples include:

Hurricane Katrina, 2005. According to the Veterans Administration, “Unlike other disaster research, which tends to show decreases in the prevalence of mental disorders over time after a disaster, following Hurricane Katrina, an increase was found. Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, there was still a high rate of hurricane-related mental health problems, including PTSD, in residents of the affected area.”2The VA further reports that African American and Vietnamese survivors, in particular, had PTSD-related symptoms exacerbated by financial stress several months after the hurricane. Another study showed that displaced Katrina survivors who re-settled in Oklahoma showed much higher levels of PTSD among evacuees than Oklahoma residents who were non-evacuees.

California Firestorm, 2003. According to the VA, these Southern California fires forced 100,000 people out of their homes. “Data collected from survivors at nearby disaster relief facilities showed that over two-thirds had feared for their life or that of a loved one. When these survivors were screened three months later, one-third screened positive for depression and almost one-fourth screened positive for PTSD.”

Research also has been and is being conducted on various minority groups to try to learn specific interventions for disaster-related PTSD. For example, people with HIV, ethnic minorities and children have been found to have special needs during such emergencies.

Hurricane Andrew, 1992. Side by side comparisons of PTSD symptoms from survivors of Hurricanes Andrew (South Florida) and Paulina (Mexico, 1997) showed that the severity of symptoms correlated with the level of trauma experienced. “The Mexican survivors showed more unwanted thoughts and memories of the trauma and avoidance of trauma reminders,” the VA reported. “The American hurricane survivors showed more PTSD arousal symptoms.”

These symptoms include irritability, aggression and self-destructive behavior – an unfortunate recipe for substance abuse.

Long-Term Effects of a Changing Climate Already Affecting Canadian Town

Beyond natural disasters, long-term climate change consequences also are having an impact on communities, even right here in North America. Consider the heartbreaking story of the Inuit indigenous people in Canada. Climate change has made it impossible for them to hunt or fish because the wildlife are disappearing in the Arctic region.

Now, many people in this small community simply drink and do drugs. There is no other industry. Suicide rates are 10 times those of the rest of the Quebec province. Violence erupts regularly, with four people killed in mid-June after a drunken stabbing spree.

“It’s been the cause of quite a few people getting killed or dying,” Nunavik Mayor Lucassie Alayco told the Canadian Broadcasting Company. “We plan to try to straighten this out after what’s happened. People are going to be more openly talking about this to get this behind us and see what we can do with this alcohol issue that’s been plaguing Nunavik.”3

How Anthony Turned Tragedy into Triumph

On a micro level, the report’s findings make clear why so many people who have lived through natural disasters suffer from PTSD, more gently referred to as PTS. PTS takes into account that labeling a victim with “disorder” is insensitive.

Acceptance of climate change as a valid global problem also lends compassion to those who have survived Mother Nature’s wrath. Communities can better prepare for such disasters and learn from the research that is emerging about how these weather events impact a community’s mental health.

And the report calls on communities to do just that. Among its recommendations:

  • Foster resiliency in yourself and others.
  • Train first responders to foster positive thoughts in victims.
  • Provide clear information during disasters.
  • Reduce disparities among affected populations.

The good news is, some people are able to turn trauma into triumph. Consider the story of Anthony.

“Hello, my name is Anthony, and my story is not that different than the next person’s,” he writes on the recovery community website Heroes in Recovery.

“In 2005, a devastating force of nature by the name of Hurricane Katrina changed my life forever. I was a victim of crack cocaine for a very long time, it wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina that I realized I was in denial.

“This monster took control of my life and I didn’t even know it — or I didn’t want to know it because I was in so much pain. I found myself in California after I was displaced from New Orleans; no family, no money or job. I was all alone, or so I thought.”

With the help of his higher power and some good people at a homeless shelter called Martha’s Village & Kitchen in Indio, Calif., Anthony found sobriety.

“I just wanted to let those of you who are out there lost that there is a solution; you don’t have to be afraid,” he writes. “You’re not alone; all you have to do is ask.”4


Bibliography

1 Clayton Whitmore-Williams, S. (2017, March). Mental Health and our Changing Climate. American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica. Retrieved July 7, 2017, from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/03/mental-health-climate.pdf

2 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2016, Feb. 23) Traumatic Effects of Specific Types of Disasters. Retrieved July 7, 2017, from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/trauma/disaster-terrorism/traumatic-effects-disasters.asp

3 Bernstien, Jaela. (2017, June 12). Quebec Inuit village searches for answers after four violent deaths. Canadian Broadcasting Company. Retrieved July 7, 2017, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-akulivik-anautak-mayor-1.4156237

4 Anthony. (2011, Sept. 23). Seven Years Clean and Climbing. Heroes in Recovery. Retrieved July 7, 2017, from http://heroesinrecovery.com/stories/anthony-p-lee/

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