Mental Health Struggles After a Hurricane

I live in “The Sunshine State”, but unfortunately, it’s not always sunny herein Florida especially during hurricane season. Just last week many Floridians, including myself, were affected by hurricane Ian. While my house in suffered no damage other than to the fence and being out of power for three days, many others faired far worse. Many people lost their homes to the winds and floods. Sadly, many people also lost their lives. At the time of this writing, 103 people in Florida had died from the storm and recovery efforts are still ongoing. I work at a level 3 trauma hospital and have seen patients with injuries indirectly related to the storm such as burn injuries related to generator fires and electrocutions caused by down power lines. Being in a major storm can be terrifying and even after the storm has passed, it’s effects can still linger not just with the damage to the community, but mentally with those who survived.

For many, such natural disasters can trigger a continuing sense of anxiety and depression or worsen long-simmering mental illnesses, mental health experts say. The effects, if left untreated, can linger for years.

Going through a natural disaster like a hurricane can be very traumatic. Thousands of people had to evacuate their homes, and some had no home to return to, losing all of their possessions and some even their businesses and jobs in the process. In Orange County where I live, schools were closed for several days, and one elementary school is damaged so badly because flooding that those kids are now being taught at a high school. Imagine how traumatizing that is for elementary age kids to suddenly lose their school and have to adjust to a whole new environment that no one could have prepared them for. While children are known for being resilient, I have no doubt that many of them will need additional emotional support at this time.

Often people who suffer from a mental health issue will have a worsening of symptoms especially because they tend to lack adequate coping skills as it is. Even those who don’t suffer from mental health issues may find themselves struggling weeks to months later when they realize how difficult it may be to rebuild, the financial toll the storm has taken on them or anxiety whenever another storm may be headed their way. Once power got restored at my house I had to go through my refrigerator and freezer and throw away almost everything which in itself could cause someone on a limited income anxiety and depression as that food has to be replaced somehow. Luckily there are government assisted programs like FEMA that are offering aid to those in need.

Here are some tips for coping with natural disasters like hurricanes from The Anxiety and Depression Association of America:

  • Create a plan: Being prepared can help reduce anxiety before, during and after a big storm. Make a plan to evacuate and put together preparedness kits.
  • Be informed: Keep a close eye on weather information and warnings. That may help you gain a sense of control over the situation.
  • Talk it out: Don’t be afraid to talk about your fears with family members, friends, a counselor, or others who can offer emotional support.
  • Accept what you can’t control: Nobody can control the path of a storm or its damage. Excessive worry will not change anything except your emotional well-being.

Some people may need to stay away from watching too much news coverage of the storm as it can be upsetting. Trying to get back to your normal daily activities as soon as possible can be helpful as well as exercising, sleeping and eating right. It’s really hard to manage your mental health when you’re mentally and physically exhausted.

If you can, after the disasters has passed, consider doing something that may make you feel good such as donating food, money or your time. If, however, you feel extremely overwhelmed, depressed and your symptoms don’t improve in a few weeks, it may be time to seek professional help.

Often people think after a storm or natural disaster only about the clean-up and rebuilding, but it’s important that we don’t neglect the survivor’s mental health.

I’ve attached some personal pictures to show just some of the damage Ian caused across central Florida. Things are much worse in certain areas, especially where the storm made landfall.

View from my old house in Orlando the day after Ian passed through.
The view from a friend’s house

A picture a friend of mine who is a fire fighter sent me while rescuing people from flooded houses the day after hurricane Ian
The food from my refrigerator and freezer that had to be thrown away due to not having power for over three days

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