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Mental health impacts of Harvey linger a year after the storm

mental health hurricane harvey UH

Heavy storms and thunder, like the one that came through Houston Monday, can cause anxiety in children who had a tramautic eperience with Hurricane Harve. Children will experience feelings that remind them of the disaster. | Michael Slaten/The Cougar

A year after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area, individuals impacted by the storm are still in the process of healing, which includes working on the restoration of their mental health.

According to a survey by the UTHealth School of Public Health conducted four months after Harvey, 18 percent of those surveyed experienced severe psychological distress — more than four times higher than the 4 percent recorded before the disaster.

“The severity of mental health disturbance after potentially traumatic events, like natural disasters, is directly related to the severity of impact or exposure,” said professor Anka Vujanovic, a licensed clinical psychologist and Director of the UH Department of Psychology’s Trauma and Stress Studies Center. “People who were more directly impacted are at greater risk of mental health consequences.”

The majority of people impacted by a disaster like Harvey do not develop mental health issues, but those who do may suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD or problematic alcohol or substance abuse, Vujanovic said.

“People more at risk are often the same people who may have had mental health issues or trauma histories predating the storm, which were exacerbated by the events of Harvey,” Vujanovic said.

‘Getting replayed in their mind’

Mental health problems are difficult enough for adults to tackle in the wake of a disaster, but children, who do not perceive events in the same rational manner as adults, can have an even harder time coping.

“Every time they hear rain, it’s probably getting replayed in their mind,” said UH College of Nursing professor Shainy Varghese, a pediatric nurse practitioner. “I have talked to some children and parents. They have the common fears when they hear thunder, like: ‘Are we going to lose power again? Do we have to go to a shelter? What are we going to eat? When are we going to come back if we have to go?’”

The mental health ramifications of a disaster for children also depend on the severity of the loss they experienced, Varghese said.

“The kids who have lost everything, for them it’s a post traumatic stress disorder,” Varghese said. “Have they lost some family members, or just some material (things)? It depends on that too.”

The process of mental recovery from a disaster in children always depends on a particular child’s age, Varghese said, and it starts with how the parents react. If they are paranoid or anxious during future storms, it can have a negative effect on a child.

“For little children, spending time with them is the best thing. Reassure them that Mama is going to be there,” Varghese said.

Trauma in kids can usually be dealt with at home, Varghese said, but those who experience prolonged anxiety due to thunderstorms may require professional attention.

“Sometimes kids don’t know how to express their feelings, so talking to an expert will help them to express (them),” Varghese said. “The most important thing is being with your children.”

Impact on adults

For adults, negative mental impacts just after a disaster like Harvey are to be expected, Vujanovic said.

“It is so important to remember that feeling fearful, sad, or angry during or immediately following a natural disaster is normal,” Vujanovic said. “In the long-term, some people may re-experience some of those feelings when reminded of the disaster.”

If those feelings are brief and do not interfere with daily life, Vujanovic said, it can be considered a normal reaction. However, if people experience “excessive, draining, or all-consuming” anxiety during a storm or when they are expecting one, it could be a sign of the necessity of seeking treatment.

“Such reactions may be indicative of post traumatic stress, anxiety or mood disorders,” Vujanovic said.

Mental health issues in those affected by a disaster will manifest in symptoms like appetite changes, sleep disturbances, concentration problems or irritability, Vujanovic said.

“Taking the time to get rest, eat well, exercise and connect with others on a regular basis is a good practice that can help prevent physiological or psychological issues,” Vujanovic said. “Staying in the present moment or present day can be a beneficial strategy.”

Vujanovic also recommends a strategy called balanced thinking. Those who experience mental health effects following a disaster should be aware of their thought processes and realize that thoughts are perceptions of reality, not necessarily the truth of it.

“For example, overly negative thoughts, such as, ‘Things will never get better,’ if wholeheartedly believed, can lead to or maintain mood or anxiety problems,” Vujanovic said. “Sometimes, simply creating a mental buffer between ourselves and such thoughts can make a difference in anxiety and mood symptoms.”

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