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Mental Health of Victims of Natural Disasters
By: Emily Giacalone, Christie Hamilton & Katie Mortensen
10 November 2017
Natural disasters may affect the world around us, but they also affect the mind within us. Specifically regarding the victims of natural disasters, the subject of mental health may become an issue that could be long-lasting. Due to the dangers around them and the loss of so much, it is inevitable that these people will enter a very vulnerable mental state post-disaster. Through our topic of, “Mental Health of Victims of Natural Disasters,” many subcategories of this vulnerable mental state have become increasingly recognized due to the increasing number of natural disasters in today’s world. The types of mental health issues that are results of these disasters include depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and many others.
The occurrence of a natural disaster may cause many destructive variables that leave its victims mentally debilitated. Such mental debilitation may include PTSD, depression, and anxiety as noted above. With the presence of numerous natural disasters lately, the effects on the human psyche has gotten much attention in the recent news. More specifically, the depressive state that the victims of natural disasters go through is wide-ranging and has been noted as a serious issue. Depression is defined as a “common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act” (American Psychiatric Association). It is triggered by a change in the chemistry of the brain. For most people, the main causes of this chemical imbalance are large, upsetting life events. This is very common in the aftermath of natural disasters through the loss of personal items, loved ones, and much more. Although, according to Tang Bihan, “studies have demonstrated that sometimes there is a delay in the onset of depression in both children and adults. Depression can be experienced weeks or months after the natural disaster, and in some cases persists for years”. This ia a reason as to why the signs and symptoms of depression should be known, so the people prone to depression can be aware of what is happening internally. Symptoms of depression include lack of motivation, lack of sleeping or oversleeping, mood fluctuation, and many more. Although research on the causation of depression is incomplete, a semi-consensus is that “nerve cell connections, the nerve cell growth, and the functioning of nerve circuits have a major impact on depression” (Harvard Health). Countless people with depression will try and recover their life in different ways. Luckily, depression is very treatable with the right care and concern. A very common method used to treat depression is the use of medication, although there are side effects in many cases. Another, more natural treatment used to combat depression is psychotherapeutic counseling. “Skilled therapists can work with depressed individuals to pinpoint the life problems that contribute to their depression and help them understand which aspects of those problems they may be able to solve or improve, identify negative or distorted thinking patterns that contribute to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that accompany depression, explore other learned thoughts and behaviors that create problems and contribute to depression, and help people regain a sense of control and pleasure in life” (American Psychological Association). Some people use both forms, medication and counseling, to fight their illness. Given that natural disaster victims are prone to depression, understanding depression will not only help the victims of past natural disasters, but it can also “help clinicians provide more tolerated treatments to reduce symptoms and aid post-disaster recovery” (Bihan). With so many people in such a devastating state, help can come from anyone around them. The help can be large or small. They can use whatever may be of assistance. The awareness of these mental issues as a result of the natural disaster is crucial.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, like depression, is very common after a natural disaster. PTSD is the feeling of anxiety, depression, flashbacks and other symptoms after a trauma has occurred. There are many types of common traumatic events that can cause or lead to post traumatic stress disorder. Natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornados, or tsunamis are leading factors that can cause PTSD because they can affect large populations and destroy everything, which is a very traumatic experience to live through. The news article “The Trauma That Arises from Natural Disasters”, by Susanne Babbel states, “like many causes of trauma, natural disasters can be sudden and overwhelming.” Because the disaster is so sudden the first reaction most people have is to be in shock or denial of the devastation that just occurred. “Shock can give way to an overemotional state that often includes high levels of anxiety, guilt, or depression” (Babbel 2010). Natural disasters, like the wildfire that just occurred in Sonoma County, can destroy people’s homes, all their belongings, and even their loved ones. Without anywhere to live these people affected might have to live in shelters until they can get back on their feet. Sometimes, living in shelters with others who have been affected by the disaster can help victims cope with the loss because they know they are not alone in the situation. With the loss of their homes and belongings, victims may begin to experience symptoms of PTSD and grief. They might have trouble sleeping, or become very irritable. Some might try to detach themselves from their emotions and enter a stage of avoidance. When a loved one or a large population of people doesn’t survive a disaster, the victims might experience survivor’s guilt. This is when the victim survived a traumatic event while their loved ones or others did not. Survivor’s guilt is another symptom of PTSD. Sometimes PTSD doesn’t always occur right away. At first, some victims can seem to be completely normal and then start to get the symptoms of PTSD after weeks, months, or even years after the disaster. A study done by Mustafa Yildiz shows that the effects on victims of natural disasters are similar to the effects of victims of rape, kidnapping, terrorists asks, or being a prisoner of war. The study also shows that PTSD is the most prevalent type of psychiatric morbidity after disasters.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be treated with the right psychotherapy, medication, or both. It is important that a professional who is experienced in the therapy of PTSD is treating the patient. Cognitive Behavior Therapy has been found to be the most effective treatment of PTSD both in short term and long term (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). This therapy focuses of the trauma from PTSD patients. “It focuses on identifying, understanding, and changing thinking and behavior patterns” (ADAA). Patients are asked to learn skills and use them outside of their therapy sessions to promote improvement. There are many components of cognitive behavior therapy. Exposure therapy is the type of intervention that exposes the patient to their fears and their past experience with trauma. As they are gradually exposed to their past trauma they become less and less sensitive to the memory over time. Cognitive restructuring is an intervention that helps the patients look at their trauma from a realistic perspective. Sometimes victims of traumatic experiences do not remember everything that happened to them. This therapy helps them to make sense of what they do remember. Stress inoculation training is a treatment method that helps patients of PTSD cope with their stress and anxiety. The patient is taught many coping skills like “breathing retraining, muscle relaxation, cognitive restructuring, and assertiveness” (ADAA). Although PTSD can be treated, victims of natural disasters and patients of PTSD can experience trauma related memories for years afterwards or even for the rest of their lives. Natural disasters are things that happen so suddenly and can take everything away from a person which is why they can have such a big mental effect on the victims and survivors of natural disasters.
With the recent fires in the North Bay area as well as the many hurricanes that occurred beforehand, natural disasters are on everyone’s minds. The harsh truth is that, “more than one third of the population will be exposed to a natural disaster in their lifetime” (North). This leaves a lot of room for improvement in the mental health world because the likelihood of those affected by natural disasters to develop disorders is extremely high. These disorders develop from the different aspects of the disaster such as those who survived, those who know someone who did not survive, those affected by being displaced, and those who are displaced for longer than others. This is no easy time for the community and it is important to remember how to take care of everyone’s mental health during not only during this time, but all the time. These types of losses produce different stressors that contribute to the development of different disorders. For example, “property loss and damage, leaving behind poor living conditions, disrupting of employment, school, etc. are all associated with elevated stress levels” (Fussell).
In comparison to the physical damage that disasters cause, mental health problems are different in that their damage is not always apparent. A mental disorder is not something you can always visibly see on a person, which makes getting them the proper care a bit more difficult. This is why, “in post disaster settings, a systematic framework of case identification, triage, and mental health interventions should be integrated into emergency medicine and trauma care responses. Mental and physical consequences of major disasters have garnered increasing attention to the need for an effective community response” (North). A lot of the world might not know what kinds of effects follow after a natural disaster, so for this reason it is important to inform them in order to be able to seek the proper care if a disaster ever strikes.
The signficance of the effects of natural disasters is obvious. Whether it be a noticeable effect or a hidden effect, like mental issues, victims need help to cope with what they have lost. After people may have lost their homes, their jobs, their family members and much more, they undergo these private mental issues that can consume their lives. Depression, PTSD, and anxiety are just three of the numerous struggles that arise and victims face post-disaster. Finding the right treatment is key to fighting the battle that these victims unfortunately face. Different people decide to use different outlets of treatments, but the most common are through both medicine and psychotherapy counseling. Regardless of which treatment is used, the goal of quality mental health remains the same.
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