You’ve probably seen images of towns that have been devastated by disaster. Homes flooded and ripped apart by the water and wind of a hurricane. Lines of buildings destroyed in the path of a tornado. Smoldering remnants of wildfire. These are very clear physical signs that people’s lives have been disrupted. Fast forward a couple months, perhaps a year, maybe longer. Floodwaters have been cleared, homes rebuilt – in most places, you probably couldn’t even tell something terrible had happened there. But the damage of a disaster goes far beyond the physical realm.
The stress and trauma of a disaster has lasting effects on the survivors’ mental health. One of the ways this manifests is in a sort of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, let’s say a couple’s home suddenly became part of a mandatory evacuation zone during a hurricane. This couple would have a very short amount of time to gather necessities like clothes and shoes, as well as photos, family heirlooms, and important documents. Then, they would have to fight evacuation congestion, on roads, on trains, and/or in airports. They may not even have a definite place to go once they get out of the area. All of this stress and trauma does not quickly resolve, even once the couple gets back in their home – and the next time there is a threat of a hurricane, the couple will likely experience severe anxiety.
Depression is also seen in disaster survivors. Feelings of hopelessness and loss often accompany the damage or destruction of a home, a neighborhood, or even an entire town. Survivors often have little to no control over when they can return to life as they know it, as disaster response organizations like FEMA often will not allow people back into their homes until the area is declared to be safe. They may be displaced for weeks, even months, separated from their lives and friends and routines. Additionally, the end of the rebuilding, repairing, and rehabilitation process may not be in sight, which leads to depression’s signature sadness and hopelessness.
There are a number of other “unseen” consequences of disaster. One is unique to large shelters set up for victims to stay in. In addition to the aforementioned anxiety and depression, living and sleeping in a communal space can leave people – women and children, most commonly – vulnerable to sexual abuse. Domestic abuse often increases post-disaster, as the primary breadwinner of the family feels unable to provide and fulfill their typical role – some people may take this anger and frustration out on their partner and/or children.
Fortunately, social workers are often trained in how to respond to disasters and the unique challenges they pose. In a world facing more disasters due to anthropogenic climate change, we must prepare to not only heal the physical scars of disaster but the mental ones as well.
Source: Alston, M., Hazeleger, T., and Hargreaves, D. (2019). Social work and disasters: a handbook for practice. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
©2020 Meteorologist Margaret Orr