October 2011 Issue
September 20, 2011

Natural disasters: The emotional toll

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United

People often underestimate their emotional attachment to physical space and place, said Scott Hicks, a social worker with NYSUT's Social Services Department, which offers free resources for members in need.

"So when disaster displaces a person, a unique grieving process unfolds," said Hicks.

Reactions include:

  • Panic, with attempts to restore the space quickly;
  • Exhaustion;
  • Overextending one's capacity for lifting and for lengthy work stints, resulting in injury;
  • A sense of helplessness toward complete resolution, leading to an unrealistic assessment of one's own powerlessness;
  • Taking on too much at once and losing the ability to prioritize;
  • Obsessive worries about the larger context of the disaster (for example, financial ruin);
  • Lessening of intensity in attachment to others due to preoccupation with urgent restoration;
  • Lessening of verbalization;
  • Depression;
  • A feeling that one's life is over; and
  • A sense of victimization, leading to a surge in counterproductive anger.

"It is important for our members and others impacted by disaster to pace their response to crisis, to formulate an array of options for the restoration efforts and to focus on the aspects that they can manage," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, who oversees the union's health and safety programs.

Maintaining one's mental health following the loss of a home can be aided by:

  • Gathering photographs or other salvageable items;
  • Joining with others to restore and reclaim their space;
  • Limiting the duration of work stints;
  • Prioritizing and putting tasks into segments by day;
  • Reviewing your own resources; and
  • Insisting on periods of no work or problem solving.

"People should do a self check about a month or two after a disaster as to how they're handling things emotionally," said Robin Goodman, a New York City psychologist and chair of the Disaster Response Network for New York State Psychological Association (NYSPA), a NYSUT affiliate. Warning signs include a persistent feeling of being unsettled; trouble concentrating; difficulty doing basic things; feeling irritable and angry a lot; and constant thinking about the disaster.

Goodman said NYSPA has psychologists throughout the state trained in disaster response; some are called to shelters and others volunteer to provide up to three free sessions for people in need.