When Hurricane Sandy hit in late October 2012, top priority was given to evacuating the last of the homes threatened by rising waters and surging winds, not access to mental health care. In total, Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to more than 8 million homes and cost the affected area $25 billion in lost revenue and repair costs, according to TIME magazine.
Less than a year later, the physical rubble from Sandy has been cleared, but what about the psychological fallout for residents of New York and New Jersey? USA Today reported that, even though the physical toll of the disaster may be forgotten, some people cannot let go of the emotional trauma that the storm caused. In these cases, mental health services need to be more accessible than ever before.
Cleaning up after the storm
Superstorm Sandy was one of the most destructive natural events to affect the U.S. since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Though the community has had several months to dig itself out from the physical destruction caused by the storm, some residents of the New York metropolitan area are having difficulty moving past the event emotionally.
Emergency preparedness firm Healthcare Quality Strategies, Inc. compiled the publicly available Medicare data of New Jersey’s Monmouth and Ocean County residents to see what medical procedures were being billed for in the wake of Sandy. The company found that depression screenings doubled, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses increased 8 percent and anxiety disorders increased by 5.8 percent.
Suzanne Dalton, quality improvement specialist and project manager at HQSI, told the Asbury Park Press that health care providers have seen an influx of patients seeking mental health treatments.
“We’re hearing [from providers] that, ‘Before the storm we might have had 20 people in our self-help groups, and after the storm, we have 40 people in these groups,'” Dalton told the news source.
Seeking mental health services after experiencing a traumatic event like a natural disaster can be common. Natural disasters can prompt unique reactions in people, as there is no direct cause or figure to blame for the traumatic event. The Mental Health Association of San Francisco explained that usual symptoms of a mental health condition following a natural disaster include the following:
- Disbelief and confusion
- Apathy or emotional numbing
- Changes in eating pattern
- Difficulty sleeping
- Anxiety about the future
While these individual actions are normal following a traumatic event, it can be difficult to determine when they constitute a condition in need of treatment.
Like the people hit by Hurricane Sandy, it is crucial that those with mental health conditions caused by natural disasters seek help immediately. There is no strict timeline for when people may experience symptoms of a mental disorder following a traumatic event, but seeking treatment as soon as possible is often the best way to minimize risk.
Maureen Persi was living in New Jersey’s Ortley Beach when Sandy hit the East Coast. She evacuated before the worst of the storm surge, rain and wind made landfall, but the process of returning to a partially destroyed home left her with unpleasant memories and frayed nerves. Instead of seeking help, Persi got caught up in the post-disaster whirlwind of getting her life back in order.
“We were so anxious to get back home,” Persi told the APP. “We probably should have [sought treatment], but we didn’t have any time.”
Delaying treatment for mental health conditions can be a risky decision, and while each individual has different coping strategies for the difficult times in their lives, it can be hard for non-professionals to identify the signs of a true mental health disorder. Though survivors of natural disasters may feel fine, it may take a mental health professional to make a proper diagnosis.
PsychCentral explained that the first responders to a disaster site often need psychological treatment due to their exposure to extreme situations. Though these men and women may feel that they need to remain impassive and unemotional to best help others, they still require examinations by medical professionals. If even first responders can not always tell if they have developed a mental disorder following a natural disaster, everybody should err on the side of caution and seek treatment.