Depression, worry and anger increase in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy.
Residents in areas most affected by the fall 2012 Superstorm Sandy—said to have caused damage totaling over $71.3 billion—are continuing to suffer from the emotional costs, says a Gallup poll measuring rates of depression before and after Sandy.
Those in zip codes most heavily affected by Sandy experienced a 25 percent rise in depression diagnoses in the six weeks following the storm, while those living in surrounding areas saw a 17 percent increase.
There has also been an increase in the rates of daily feelings of worry and anger, the findings state.
Moreover, Gallup reports that these numbers only report a “conservative estimate” of the emotional toll that the storm has taken.
What does this mean in terms of the mental and emotional health of such a large segment of Americans?
“Some of what we see as symptoms that are normally associated with depression are going to be seen and experienced by individuals following any traumatic experience,” explains Joseph Smith, PhD, executive director of Long Beach Reach, Inc., a community-based center offering a wide range of mental health, rehabilitation and treatment options to residents of Long Beach, NY and surrounding areas.
Long Beach Reach is also home to Project HOPE, a program that offers teams of crisis counselors who make themselves available to work in the field—meeting clients at their homes, workplaces, wherever they are needed—to help them overcome continuing challenges.
“These are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances,” Smith continues. “Much of what we experience in the face of a catastrophe like this is perfectly normal and understandable. That doesn’t mean we don’t need support or treatment to deal with it.”
The disaster has evoked what mental health experts call “situational depression,” adds NYC-based psychotherapist Karol Ward, LCSW, which is “depression and anxiety caused by overwhelming experience or situation such as Hurricane Sandy.”
“[It] is an emotional reaction to a set of outside circumstances that cause us to feel helpless,” she explains. “The symptoms of situational depression are the same as clinical depression; hopelessness, despair, sadness, physical aches, irritability, restlessness or lethargy but when the situation shifts or is resolved, the depression usually lifts.”
While most of those affected by Sandy have suffered or are continuing to suffer from situational depression, Smith notes that there is a small segment of the population—“perhaps five to ten percent”—of those who had struggled with clinical depression and other issues before the storm, which would have been exacerbated by the disaster.
“About 90 to 95 percent of people who are affected will be just fine,” he explains. “Their functioning will return to normal, they will get through it, and in all likelihood they will be all right in time.”
“That leaves five to ten percent who are going to need more significant intervention to recover to return to their prior conditions,” Smith notes.
Most importantly, Smith urges Sandy survivors to understand that their feelings are normal, especially in response to such an unusual and devastating event.
PA-based clinical social worker John D. Weaver, LCSW compares post-disaster depression to the grieving process.
“People will have good days and bad days as they grieve the losses and rebuild their lives,” he explains. “With disasters there are many reminders and triggers—watching the news or weather can be a big one. Daily anger is common as people face the second disaster of rebuilding including struggles with government and politicians, insurance companies, contractors, disappointment in friends and family who aren't always helpful, [and so forth].”
Ward advises combating the symptoms of depression, worry and anger with a variety of strategies. “If possible, some form of physical movement, breathing, writing and talking to a professional will help,” she says. “If there is agitation, I recommend more vigorous movement, brisk walking, jogging, running, boxing. If there is worry and sadness, I recommend stretching, yoga, deep breathing, prayer or meditation.”
She also recommends releasing feelings by writing them down, and talking with a social worker, therapist, coach, or spiritual adviser for help.
Weaver encourages peer counseling. “Folks tend to get through the rebuilding best with peer support—talking about it, working together to clean up and rebuild, and at some point paying it forward, once they are whole, in passing along the help and support to others,” he contends.
Smith also advises people to seek help if they are struggling with negative feelings. “In our society we tend to emphasize the rugged individualist, but part of the human experience means that we are social creatures and we do depend on others,” he maintains. “If we try to pretend that we are not experiencing upset and sadness we are more vulnerable to more severe reactions.”
“There is nothing shameful about seeking help and having some support. It does not mean you are not strong or capable,” Smith concludes. “It means that you are faced with a stressful or difficult situation and so to seek some support and help and is the smart thing to do—the strong thing to do.”
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