The Mental Health Impact of Hurricanes

The Mental Health Impact of Hurricanes

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By William Schroeder, MA, LPC, NCC

I have been watching the footage of the Hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico and have tremendous empathy for those who are going through the reality of post-storm reality. I moved to Austin 12 years ago due to Hurricane Katrina. After watching the news I couldn’t help but think of the mental health impact of Hurricanes. What follows is a brief summary of my process of things following the storm and then what I would advise for others going through it given some insight.

The Stages of Grieving Following A Disaster

Shock and Denial

I remember the immediate aftermath of crying when I realized my city was forever changed and a feeling of overwhelm like I had never experienced, and this was just the beginning of a long road. I tried to become a man of action as I was worried about getting stuck. There were a ton of problems – that all needed to be urgently resolved (damage to the house, temporary housing, mortgage, no power in New Orleans for months, school and job difficulties, cell phones that didn’t work, etc.). I wanted to get back in school, get to Austin, move my friends there, and start my life. I distinctly remember the long dark drives back to Austin from New Orleans after trips back to work on my house there. I would call friends and tell them how awesome Austin was and all the reasons they should move. Austin was new, thrilling, and completely unexplored. It seemed opportunity was waiting around every corner.

Pain, Anger, Depression, & Grief

After I had to moved a couple of times in the months following the storm, I started to realize I was still in a bit of denial about my reality and what had happened was truly pretty traumatic. A chapter of my life was shut without warning. Initially, I was in survival mode, I never got to grieve. After several moves, I was living in Dallas and the pain and anger came to up for me. I hated Dallas and the reality I seemed to be stuck in. I constantly read the news about New Orleans and the immense problems everyone I knew was confronting in the city during the recovery. I became a bit obsessed with it and it made me feel different than everyone I knew. I could not forget the visions of seeing people abandoning cars and the long lines of cars heading into a city under military law. I had flashbacks to what it had been like to be in a city where when I hammered on the side of my house, all I could hear was the echo of my hammer as the city was truly dead — no birds chirping, cars on the road, streetcars, boats on the river, air conditioning units, or any other sounds of normal life.

All of this fueled a depression and a physical pain in my back from constantly being tense, unlike anything I had ever encountered. I remember feeling that an emotional wall existed between myself and the rest of the non-hurricane world. I told one guy about the hurricane and he responded: “Well, the storm wasn’t as bad as the Tsunami in Thailand.” I remember feeling a seething anger towards the guy that said that as this was my emotional tsunami and comparisons didn’t help.

Upward Turn

I realized I was depressed as I wasn’t leaving the house and my couch had developed a permanent divot where my butt was planted every day for a month or two. I was stuck in a hole of reading news stories that detailed the difficult recovery ahead and looking for ways to make my next steps but not seeing an obvious path. I started going to therapy which helped lift some of the fog. This, in turn, allowed me to start focusing on other goals, like finishing grad school, working out, and getting a job. I realized I needed to get out of Dallas and back to Austin.

Acceptance and Hope

Following my return to Austin, I started to accept what had happened, built better support networks, continued working out, and found things that grounded me and gave me hope. One of those things for many was the New Orleans Saints. For the years that followed the storm, the Saints game on Sunday was our church and our community. Staying connected to others following the storm really helped as it helped you to not feel so alone.

Tips For Those Affected

  1. Understanding the stages of grieving: What I laid out about were my stages of grieving, but you might be aided in reading more about this to see if you can recognize this in yourself and others.
  2. Depression is a big enemy: Depression snuck in the back door of my mind and took up residence for a little while following the storm. No doubt many going through the hurricane will show signs of depression: fatigue, pessimism, trouble concentrating, insomnia or sleeping too much, irritability, hopelessness, etc. That said, counseling and support can be helpful during times like these.
  3. Find what helps and what hurts: If you notice that certain things trigger you (as the news was for me) find other outlets of stimulation. This could be time with friends, working out (even a 30-minute walk helps your brain), utilizing your faith, meditation, time with family (this can be a pro and a con), journaling, etc.
  4. Be patient: One thing I learned following Hurricane Katrina is that recovery takes a long time. New Orleans has gone through a lot of changes following the storm. In going back to visit, I feel like a number of the changes have been very positive and made the city innovate in ways that it previously could not. There are whole new sections of town that didn’t exist before and restaurants are booming. A lot of things were fixed in the city which could not have been fixed prior to the storm. That said, I can see that more easily since 12 years have passed. 3 years into the recovery, those signs weren’t so obvious and contractors still filled every cheap hotel. Find ways to pace yourself in this time of recovery by having time that isn’t storm focused.
  5. Simple things mean the most: I wasn’t a big fan of mindfulness prior to the storm but following the storm, I noticed it really did help. Taking a walk and trying to focus on the feeling of the sun on my arms, counting steps, noticing the breeze, etc. It all helped to get me out of my head for a bit. This can be something as simple as eating your lunch in a different space and trying to not let thoughts of the day creep in. It could also be time with your phone off and try to be present with your partner.
  6. If you need help, get it: Counseling, even if it is just for a few sessions, can really help. It can give you a place to unpack everything that is going on and make better sense of it all. You can grow your awareness around triggers and develop better-coping techniques.

If we can be of any help to those affected by Hurricane Harvey, please let us know. You can contact us to make a counseling appointment. We have a skilled team of clinicians and we know what it is like to go through chaos and can help you grow from it as well. You can also get more information on our adult counseling and depression counseling pages.