Healing emotional wounds after disaster

By Jamie Smith Hopkins and Dean Russell, Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations

We heard from more than 200 disaster survivors and people helping them. Here’s what we learned.

Disasters are stressful: One recent survey found that 50 percent of Houston-area residents have faced powerful or severe emotional distress since Hurricane Harvey deluged the city in 2017. Our warming world keeps strengthening hurricanes and floods, among other calamities, and now we’ve got COVID-19. What can be done about this trauma?

The Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations and our partners in newsrooms around the country have been reporting on this for months. We’ve learned a lot by asking experts: people who’ve lived through disasters and the professionals who study this or provide hands-on help. More than 230 shared their experiences in our detailed survey, and we interviewed dozens of additional people.

Some takeaways:

Be aware. You’re one step ahead if you know that surviving a disaster and dealing with the long aftermath can be hard on mental health. Keep an eye out for symptoms, not just obvious ones like constant worrying or feeling short-tempered, but also trouble sleeping (or oversleeping), overeating (or lack of appetite) and heavy drinking. Remember that kids can feel the impact, too, and that might show up as acting out or trouble in school.

You might notice effects right away. Or they might take a while to surface. Either way, it’s normal, and it can linger. Kathy Payton, whose Fifth Ward neighborhood in Houston was hard-hit by Harvey, sums it up: “It feels like there’s no end in sight.”

Seek support. Most people who took our survey didn’t get mental-health services after their disaster experience. Some couldn’t afford therapy or other assistance. Some thought they didn’t need it, though the emotional challenges a portion of them reported made us wonder if support could have made the hard times more bearable.

Whether you get professional help or not, remember that your community can be a powerful source of emotional assistance. Family, friends, your pastor or other religious leaders, neighbors, co-workers — support can come from a variety of places.

Offer help. Some disaster survivors found solace as they assisted others, one way to get some control back in a situation primed to make people feel powerless.

“It helped me to keep my sanity,” said Hilton Kelley, a restauranteur whose family’s post-Harvey efforts included cooking gumbo for people in their community of Port Arthur, Texas. 

Take action. Identifying a problem that caused or worsened the disaster’s impacts — and then pressing for fixes — is a key way some survivors bolster their wellbeing. From flood-control advocacy to climate change activism, they’re trying to effect change.

“Use that trauma,” advises Solemi Hernandez, a Florida resident who survived Hurricane Irma in 2017 and presses for action on global warming. “Turn that trauma and that suffering into being politically active.”

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