Katrina Survivors and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Months ago, Americans were glued to their television sets, watching in horror, as the devastation to our neighbors played out in the Gulf Region of the United States. People and institutions from around the globe demonstrated their care and concern. Throughout the country, our people opened their homes, schools, shelters, and resources to assist those victimized by an unprecedented natural disaster.
As the governor of Arizona reiterated, "This is not a sprint, but a marathon!" Our new neighbors will continue to need ongoing assistance in the form of food, clothing, and hope for a new future. Like most horrific events that people experience (whether natural or not), the survivors will need time to process the trauma of this horrific event.
One image portrayed on television, still replays in my mind. I can still see the courageous rescuers cruising through the waters of a downtown New Orleans street. They approach a house which has a water level just below the stairway to the front door. A man greets the rescuers, declines assistance from them, and proceeds to take a dust broom and sweep off the steps of his entry way.
That image, from the streets of New Orleans, characterizes the very nature of Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. This poor man was continuing to play out his life like nothing had happened. Psychic numbing and denial had a firm grip on this victim, and he wasn't about to leave the only possession he had ... his home.
Although necessary, no amount of money and aid will make this pain go away for the grieving victims of the Gulf Region disaster. Only through time, and emotional support, will the painful reality of this trauma diminish. Many of the evacuees from this tragedy will need psychological assistance in order to be in a position to move forward with their lives. Is this country prepared to provide the support needed for the healing of our people?
In the years to come, we can expect to be faced with monumental emotional fallout from this natural disaster affecting our people. In order to assist those who experience PTSD, one must understand the features of the disorder. Here is a general overview of the symptoms:
- An initial response of psychic numbing and denial.
- An experience which involved the threat of serious injury or harm.
- An experience of intense fear, vulnerability, and horror.
- A persistent reexperiencing of the traumatic event within.
- Avoidance of stimuli associated with the event.
- Persistent symptoms of hypervigilence, a startle/arousal response.
- Increased agitation, anxiety, depression, and anger.
- Emotional withdrawal and social detachment.
- Reliance on a pattern of self-medicating through alcohol and other substances.
We know that some of the Gulf Region evacuees were suffering from mental disorders prior to Hurricane Katrina. These people need urgent psychological intervention to make sure that they are getting the necessary medications and counseling support for their disorders. Others, who have been overwhelmed by the emotional trauma of this catastrophic event, will also need psychological support. Various states and local municipalities housing evacuees will need to coordinate mental health efforts through a myriad of support agencies. Volunteers will need to be recruited and trained so that they can assist those who are experiencing the pain of Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. If we do not address the mental health needs resulting from our neighbors' grief and despair, there will be no moving forward for the many that were touched by the power of Hurricane Katrina. Now that the initial shock of this traumatic event has come and gone, it is time for all of us to re-commit ourselves to doing what is necessary to help our neighbors in need.
James P. Krehbiel is a licensed professional counselor and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at krehbielcounseling.com.