02/09/2017 11:06 AM AEST | Updated 06/09/2017 2:18 AM AEST

From The Mental Health Wreckage Of Katrina, Lessons To Help Harvey's Victims

As Texas begins to rebuild its buildings and roadways in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, survivors of the catastrophic storm, along with the medical professionals who treat them, may face psychological trauma from displacement and the loss of homes, property and, especially, loved ones.

The link between a hurricane and mental health struggles has been documented through research on the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated Louisiana in 2005. A year after the storm, the Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) Project found that nearly half of the 392 low-income parents they studied reported symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An associated study concluded that the rates of probable serious mental illness in low-income parents in New Orleans doubled in the aftermath of the hurricane, a rise that’s likely to be reflected in southeast Texas.

“There’s a great deal of fear and anxiety about the future. And so we’re seeing a lot of very anxious people who are not sure what they’ll find when they return to their homes,” said Annalee Gulley, the director of public policy and government affairs for Mental Health America of Greater Houston. She has been working to coordinate the mental and behavioral health response at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, where thousands of Harvey evacuees are still sheltering.

Gulley explained to HuffPost that the mental health responders at the center are facing the challenges of helping people with existing mental health diagnoses continue to get treatment and responding to new trauma caused by the storm.

Many evacuees were unable to grab medications when they rushed to safety, so CVS, Walgreens and Walmart have made donations to help people who have mental health diagnoses. For those who may have suffered new trauma, clinical social workers walk the halls of the convention center, where signs are posted that show the symptoms of PTSD.

Carlos Barria / Reuters
After Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area, evacuees find shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Many evacuees did not have time to grab medications before having to flee the floodwaters.

What We Can Learn From Previous Storms

After Hurricane Katrina, mental health professionals were able to learn more about how disasters affect mental health, lessons that they are now applying to help the survivors of Hurricane Harvey.

Dr. Melissa Allen, the medical director of the UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center, has been working to care for survivors of the storm. She said that, while people’s reactions to disasters are very individual, there were indications of higher rates of substance abuse, anxiety and depression among Katrina survivors. People who were exposed to disaster zones for longer and received less support afterward were more likely to suffer mental health problems.

One of the biggest lessons of Katrina, Allen said, was that it was crucial to have resources ready before the disaster hit. In the aftermath, even basic needs ― clothes, shoes, toothbrushes ― can help restore survivors’ sense of safety.

Like many of the faculty in the hospital, Allen’s house was flooded, and she had to evacuate with her children. She said that working in the hospital has actually distracted her from dwelling on the destruction in the city.

“It allows us to be of use in a situation where many of us are feeling kind of helpless, and just being able to give back and do something is a very positive thing,” she told HuffPost.

Carlos Barria / Reuters
Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, neighborhoods were still flooded with oil and water. People who are exposed to disaster zones for longer and receive less support afterward are more vulnerable to mental health issues.

What People Are Seeing In Texas

In the wake of major traumatic events, such as Harvey and Katrina, survivors may begin to experience symptoms including intense or unpredictable feelings, changes in thought and behavior, trouble sleeping and a sense of isolation. Allen said that some of her patients were struggling with anxiety, confusion, a sense of loss or depression, but she added that survivors could have a wide range of emotions and that early intervention could help mitigate the psychological effects.

Children, in particular, are vulnerable. The trauma of the storm itself might be combined with the stress of dislocation and the disruption of routines. Children may become more worried, fearful, aggressive or withdrawn.

“In children, the loss of their normal routine and their sense of safety is really disruptive, and it can be a very confusing time,” Allen said. “So it’s important to re-establish a sense of normalcy as soon as possible, and to talk with a child who has been through something like this and see what it is they need, what they feel like happened, and just be there to reassure that they are in a safe place now.”

In order to provide a space where children can feel safe to have such conversations, Mental Health America of Greater Houston has set up two children’s zones in the convention center. Children can go into the areas to play, feel secure and to talk to professionals about their experiences.

“We’re asking licensed clinical social workers, licensed marriage and family therapists, and other medical professionals to go in and make sure that these children still have the ability to be kids while they’re here in the shelter,” Gulley said. “And also to begin to have the conversations regarding what they’ve experienced, what they’ve seen, and what their families might be facing in the days and months to come.”

Although the psychological effects of hurricanes are undeniable, being aware of the problems and responding appropriately can make a difference. In the face of destruction, Allen said, it is important for people to take time to mourn their losses. That could mean anything from losing possessions to losing loved ones, including those who have died, are missing or have had to relocate far from family. It is also important for survivors to ask for help when they need it.

Allen explained that helping with the community recovery effort and listening to survivors’ needs is crucial. The American Red Cross is calling on mental health professionals to volunteer to help storm survivors. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is providing hotlines for people affected by the storm.

“The more people that are available to help out, the easier it is to reestablish a sense of normalcy,” Allen said. “So don’t be afraid to ask for support from your community and those around you.”

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