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Coping with the Aftermath: Ways to Deal with Mental Health Issues Following a Natural Disaster and How to Extend a Helping Hand

Hurricane Florence caused a wide swath of destruction across several parts of the East Coast with North Carolina bearing the brunt of the devastation.

Many individuals, families and organizations have extended helping hands to those in need. Those affected are coping with the loss of their home from flooding or damages because of the hurricane force winds.

Staff and people we support in the affected areas were reported safe, but unfortunately Monarch is currently assessing the damage to group residences, day programs, outpatient programs and the crisis facility in Lumberton. Monarch sites, programs and services remain closed until repairs can be completed.

Coping with crisis and working to overcome tragedy can be overwhelming. Monarch’s experts confirmed that a range of emotions is normal following a disaster, but that doesn’t mean those types of feelings should be ignored. Television coverage itself has the ability to trigger a reaction like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for people who have been through a hurricane or natural disaster before. Just watching those images can trigger that trauma experience.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), symptoms that someone may not be recovering from a natural disaster can range from anxiety, constant worrying, trouble sleeping and other depression-like symptoms.

Such responses are common following a disaster such as a hurricane – before, during or after the event. Experiences may include a full-on panic attack in which a person feels that they are in life-threatening, immediate danger.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs through Nov. 30 and peaks through late October. Monarch’s outpatient services offer cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) and mindfulness, both treatment options that can make coping with a disaster manageable.

At Monarch, people are taught skills to lower their anxiety and manage those feelings associated with the traumatic event. Monarch staff members can refer people to psychiatry if it’s acute and they can get short-term or long-term medication depending on their symptomology.

Monarch Behavioral Health Therapists and Mindfulness experts Karen Holst, LCSW, Ed.D., and Jude Johnson, MA, LMFT, conduct mindfulness sessions for groups and individuals impacted or who are experiencing traumatic life events including the aftermath from a natural disaster. Mindfulness trainings teach participants how to be aware of feelings without judgment.

“When we are facing uncertainty related to a natural disaster, it is wise to be informed and prepared. On the other hand, it is not helpful to check the news feed every hour to track the hurricane, because obsessing will not make us more prepared and can lead to increased anxiety and frantic decision making,” advised Johnson. “When stress becomes unmanageable, it is harder for us to understand what others are saying and can be equally challenging for us to communicate our ideas clearly.”

Johnson suggested that pausing for a few minutes to acknowledge your feelings can help formulate a wise response instead of a reaction with no direction. Mindfulness techniques before a natural disaster are no different than for any of life’s other events and are just as important following a natural disaster to aid in the recovery process.

Dr. Holst said such a time in an individual’s life can assist in prioritizing what is truly valuable. “It's very natural to focus on the loss and devastation, but the time after a disaster can also be an opportunity to identify what is really important in your life,” she said. “Transferring the energy used from focusing on devastation to focusing on the love for family, friends, and your own life can be healing. We often feel isolated and alone when we are suffering, so perhaps see if you can look at the present moment with a sense of gentleness and openness.”

Johnson and Holst also recommended placing focus on helping others to provide an opportunity to heal as well. If unable to provide support to others, mindfulness teaches and encourages us feel what we feel with as much self-compassion as possible. Both Monarch therapists advised to remind ourselves that this event will not last forever.

If you would like to contribute to Monarch’s cleanup effort to sites and residences affected by Hurricane Florence click here to donate. You can direct your gift to Monarch and the people we support affected by Hurricane Florence by following the directions at the top of the website donation page.

Additional Resources Available:

Monarch - Anyone who feels overwhelmed by their feelings is encouraged to get professional help by contacting Monarch at (866) 272-7826.

National Assistance Resources – Those that need disaster assistance from government agencies can visit Disaster Assistance.

FEMA Recovery Resources - Those needing FEMA Recovery assistance can click here for information.

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