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By Yen Duong

As people clean up after Hurricane Florence wreaked havoc through the Carolinas, after taking care of their physical needs and safety, people should spend some time thinking about their mental health.

People who have evacuated, lost their homes, or who watched their friends lose their lives and possessions on TV may be feeling anxious, sad or stressed out.

“We know disasters are stressful,” said HHS Sec. Mandy Cohen, announcing a state-sponsored hotline during a news conference on Sept. 18. “This hotline is a place [where for] 24 hours a day, you can get connected to services. Or you can just talk, [and] know that you’re not alone and that help is available.”

If you’re feeling anxious, stressed or need to talk, call the state’s behavioral health “Disaster Distress” hotline at 1-800-985-5990.

You can also request to talk to a crisis counselor with Magellan Health. Call the crisis information and resource hotline at 1-800-327-7451. Magellan can also give referrals to local shelters, food and other services.

Trillium Health Resources supports mental health in 26 eastern North Carolina counties.  Call them at 1-877-685-2415 to connect with mental health resources.

The traumatic effects of a disaster can last for decades, said psychologist Patricia Watson of the National Center for PTSD. For instance, if adults in a child’s life struggle after Florence, that may put their children at higher risk for issues down the line.

Parents and caregivers can access resources on how to help children recover after the hurricane on the website of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

The National Center for PTSD also has handouts on helping children and adults.

Exposure to a traumatic event itself is the biggest risk factor for long-term effects, Watson said. People who have lost their homes or have evacuated are more vulnerable to having issues in the future. Older people may need physical or mental assistance, but they can also serve as a support resource with memories and resilience from similar past experiences, she said.

It can be hard to tell if you need extra help. Trillium Health Resources’ brochure, Weathering the Storm, lists common symptoms after a disaster. If you still feel these after a few weeks, seek professional help.

–Feeling stressed and nervous all of the time
-Not having any energy
-Sleeping too much or having trouble sleeping
-Crying often or easily
-Keeping to yourself most of the time
-Drinking alcohol more often and/or using drugs
-Feeling “numb” or like nothing has happened
-Being angry or short-tempered more than usual
-Trouble concentrating or remembering things

“In the recovery days immediately after, people are trying to get food, shelter and making sure that their immediate needs are taken care of so, unfortunately, those mental health needs can take a back seat,” said Jennifer Mackethan of Trillium Health Resources. “It can be weeks or even a few months later when people may really start to see some of those effects.”

Helping reduce stress

People across the state should reach out to loved ones in affected areas with open-ended offers of help, Watson said.

“After a disaster, many people feel like… ‘I don’t want to reach out because all my neighbors are having trouble, I don’t want to burden anybody’,” Watson said. “Having a virtual community is really nice to be able to talk to family and friends who might not have been affected in the same way, and you feel like you can lean on them a little bit.”

In Watson’s research, she identified five elements that can help communities recover faster after mass trauma like a hurricane:

  • Safety: People need to know their loved ones are safe and feel reassured that the world is not always dangerous.
  • Calm: People need to feel calm to eat, sleep and function.
  • Self and collective efficacy: People need to feel like they and their community can get through this with shared resources and information.
  • Connectedness: People need to feel connected to social support.
  • Hope: People need to feel optimism that things will get better.

Watson said that people don’t need to tick all five boxes in order to have a strong recovery.

“If a person has a strong sense of optimism, if they have a strong sense of faith, it really is the most important element to getting them through difficult times.”

Nonprofit and community organizations can bolster and promote the five criteria. But Watson said sometimes people have high expectations of assistance from government agencies, then feel disappointed by what they end up getting.

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“Communities can buffer themselves by coming together and saying, ‘Well, we’re the only ones that are going to do this. We better all stick together and get through this together,’” she said.

Stress is normal

While it’s normal to feel depressed, anxious or stressed after a disaster, some may still feel those heightened emotions a year or more from now. Anyone struggling after a few weeks should seek help from professionals or their community, Watson said.

“Sometimes after disasters, people find that they might do fine for a short period of time, but they don’t realize that over time, they’re still struggling,” Watson said. “Going through it on your own is really hard. And just to know that somebody else cares and will take time to sit down with you can help you organize your thoughts and feelings.”

Caregivers should also seek support. When a mobile hospital headed to Pender County earlier this week, the staff included a behavioral health specialist and a chaplain.

“What we find is that when there are surges of water, when there are elevations of catastrophe, it has a toll not just on folks they’re serving but it also has a toll on servers,” said Rev. David Carl of Atrium Health. “We always have a watch out for compassion fatigue, burnout, for people who have literally overspent themselves.”

“It’s kind of the old adage that you make sure that the breathing mask is on yourself first, in order to take care of your loved ones,” agreed Mackethan. “You have to check in with yourself and make sure that you’re getting all of your immediate needs taken care of first […even if] your immediate response is to get out and see what assistance is needed elsewhere. ”

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Yen Duong

Yen Duong covers health care in Charlotte and the southern Piedmont for North Carolina Health News.

One reply on “Pay Attention to Mental Health After Florence”

  1. Carolina Partners in Mental HealthCare is giving out a 100 free sessions for mental health (therapy and medication management). Go to their Facebook page to find out more information, you can access their services online, no need to go to an office.

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