Anna Hogeland on mental health issues
We tore up our basement carpets. We evacuated our homes. Many of our roads are washed out, our bridges broken and breaking, and our skies, now that they’ve stopped pouring, sound like a war zone. Some of us lost our houses, cars, property. And some are still missing or gone.
If you’ve been directly or less-directly affected by this month’s flooding, expect the unexpected, and not necessarily right away. Reactions to disasters can set in weeks later. It may not be until it rains heavily again or you drive over the repaired bridge or hear a siren that you could feel an odd sense ripping you back to that Wednesday night and all the confusion and fear and even the adrenaline rush that came with it.
When we’re standing on shaky ground, literally and figuratively, we get off-kilter. We realize the fraud of predictability. We’re scattered, irritable, emotional, numb, you name it – any and all of it. We can feel our faith strengthening or weakening. We can become obsessed or revolted by mental images of cows tipped over and or people getting plucked out or rivers by rescuers. We may have increases or decreases in our appetite and sleep. We may revert to old habits we thought we had kicked – lighting up the first cigarette in years or holing up in front of our computers playing hours of video games, for example. It may be months or years before it could hit us. Or it may not come at all.
Dr. Josh Miller of Smith College’s School for Social Work and author of Psychosocial Capacity Building in Response to Disasters has responded to natural disasters around the world. He says people have all kinds of reactions and many go through a grieving process after an event like Colorado’s flooding, especially if they’ve lost a loved one, pet or property.
“This is an abnormal, scary event. It’s very disruptive. Having these reactions is how our bodies, minds and souls process what’s happened and move forward.”
When he visits communities affected by natural disasters, Miller says he’s reminded of their capacity to heal. “What I’ve seen, more than anything, is that people are resilient. The vast majority of people who experience this flood are going to move forward with their lives with their own resources—internal, social, community,” he says.
This will be a hard time for a lot of Coloradans, and Miller urges patience. “Give it a month,” he says. “Ask yourself, am I doing better than the week before? If you’re having nightmares, are they happening less frequently? Are you stuck and just spinning in circles? If you’re not yourself yet, are closer to yourself than you were a week ago? Usually within a month you should see significant process. The ones who need more in depth help services become clear within a month or two.”
The Veterans Affairs also offers guidance on dealing with the emotional aftermath of a natural disaster. Experts there say our resiliency can be boosted by social support, connectedness and optimism.
It may, of course, be tough to muster optimism if you’ve lost a loved one or home, or are kicking yourself for not having bought flood insurance. Even if your loss is less direct, looking on the sunny side can be a challenge after a disaster of this magnitude. Losing a sense of control naturally prompts a response in us all. Some will experience it as anger or sadness. Some will feel slighted by god or nature. And some, grasping for something or someone on which to focus their anger, will point to power plants, air conditioning units or Hummer drivers as easy targets for our blame.
The floods reminded us that we can’t avoid uncertainty. Rain will fall, rivers will flood and bad things – whatever the cause – will catch us off guard and shake our foundations. Comfort, experts say, can come merely in survival and the recognition that, at least for today, there’s sun.
[ Image by Kent Kanouse ]
Anna Hogeland is a clinical social worker and writer living in Boulder, Colorado. She has a BA in history from Bates College and a MSW from Smith College School for Social Work. Anna has clinical experience with adults with mental illness in community mental health as well as obstetrics and oncology patients at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She is currently a Post-Master’s fellow at CU Boulder’s counseling center. Anna is from the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.
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