Superstorm Sandy’s Hidden Health Costs
Stressed Sandy survivors engage in unhealthy habits, taking personal and societal toll.
While demodirt.com recently covered the psychological devastation that sufferers of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy have endured, a new Gallup poll indicates that in addition to the emotional and mental toll the disaster has taken, survivors have been engaging in unhealthy habits that could have short- and long-term consequences on their physical and mental health. Survivors report that they engage in little to no exercise—many Americans report lack of exercise in the winter months, but Sandy survivors’ numbers in this category double the national average— as well as have increased their smoking rate while decreasing their intake of healthy versus unhealthy foods. Despite expert advice that increased exercise and healthy eating help combat the negative effects of stress, survivors find a number of obstacles to maximize healthy habits, and pervasive anxiety and depression have made it challenging to abandon smoking and other substance abuse in the aftermath of this disaster.
demodirt.com spoke with 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, to find out the cost to personal and public health when disaster strikes, and what survivors can do to stay strong and healthy during this still-challenging time.
demodirt.com: What is your general reaction to the Gallup poll, which says that Sandy survivors are engaging in very unhealthy behaviors—overeating junk and convenience foods, smoking, and lack of exercise—since the disaster?
Smith: Intuitively it makes sense; when under heightened levels of stress people try to find ways to have some relief, but that is only short-lived and in the long-term—or not so long-term—they bring tremendous consequences that will ultimately heighten their depression and emotional distress.
Many considerations contribute to the survey results. The end result is that we have some major public health concerns. For example, people who are overeating may be at risk for obesity, and for the kind of medical conditions that obesity contributes to, which means added complications and expenses that impact the individual, and impact society. These include higher medical costs and an increase in emergency room visits.
Increased abuse of drugs and alcohol also impact the costs of medical treatments, detox programs, and treatment programs that are already overburdened and overtaxed. The survey gives you the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the profound implications of these issues on individuals and society.
demodirt.com: Do you see many examples of this dynamic happening with patients in your practice? If so, what have been the short- and long-term effects to their mental and physical health by engaging in unhealthy habits?
Smith: I do, and it takes many different forms, from overeating to substance abuse. We are seeing increased incidents of people with eating disorders, and to a greater extent, increased drug and alcohol abuse.
There are those who are prone to drug and alcohol abuse. These are people who were previously able to maintain sobriety who have not been able to do so in aftermath of storm.
There are also people who may drink to excess more frequently, and there are those who may not be dependent on alcohol or drugs but who turn to it now because it does represent a relief from the stress, pain, sadness, sense of loss, and frustration.
One of the other things we see is an increase in the level of tension and anger that people are experiencing, decreased patience levels, more frustration, and people are more prone to interpersonal conflict and testiness, irritability, a lack of tolerance and patience, and children can often be impacted in those ways as well.
demodirt.com: What advice can you offer to people that say that they are under too much stress, and it is too inconvenient, expensive, or otherwise impossible to eat well, exercise and avoid unhealthy habits since the storm?
Smith: There are logistical issues to consider and some people are legitimately unable to cook or prepare food and maintain eating habits that they normally would because they don’t have kitchens. Numerous people may be living in small quarters, or they may be displaced completely and living out of a suitcase.
One of the stress reduction opportunities that many people had [before the storm] was a regimen of physical activity that has been disrupted. Without that relief of the psychological and physical benefit, they are more prone to irritability and depression.
We can try to find a way to maintain at least some of our routine, maybe exercise can’t be as frequent, but there can be some allocation and scheduling, and sometimes it means we have to work together. If you have a spouse or a partner, try to carve out some time so each of you can have time to exercise. Maybe you cannot do as much as before, but try to do what you can to take care of yourself.
Another thing people can do is divide food prep and grocery responsibilities. Because time is limited, and people are under pressure, discussing that and arranging it can be a big help.
demodirt.com: Any other comments you would like to add are welcome.
Smith: Try to be able to identify that there is a need, one to talk about and figure out. Taking care of ourselves is critically important; we often take self-care for granted under the best of times, and when faced with overwhelming demands, it is even easier to forget and that only makes matters worse. Talk with those that can help—family, friends—that’s where coming together as a community is so important. We know things will be normal again and we can reestablish our routine, but we have to get from here to there and sometimes we need to rely on others. We have to understand what we cannot control, and then we can focus on what we can control.
[For example,] take the opportunity to get support from Project HOPE [available through Long Beach Reach, Inc.] where there are people who can provide reminders that these are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances, and for those that require more significant intervention, we can help link people to those resources.
People still have concrete issues. They are still rebuilding because of problems with insurance, contractors, and banks, and we are also reaching the point where the emotional impact is becoming more prominent and people’s level of anxiety, frustration, and anger are at a tipping point and they are seeking help and that is a good thing.I hope that the government will respond by making additional resources available as the need for help is not just county-wide, but region-wide and resources were strained even before the storm. There is nothing worse than knowing you need help, and you seek help only to find the doors are closed, and there are obstacles, and a waiting list. Here at Long Beach Reach we have increased our staffing, doubled our efforts to be as responsive as we can, but there is a limit to our resources and we are doing the best that we can. We are in good shape right now, but as time goes on it will become more difficult, as a real surge and demand for help will come in time.
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