Monday, July 8, 2013

Mental Health in a Disaster Situation - Quebec, California, Alberta...

Many of you may have heard about the disaster that just affected a small town in Quebec, Lac Megantic. A train with crude oil crashed in the center of this little lakeside town of 6,000 people and erupted into a fireball. The result was flattened buildings and several deaths - a war zone depiction, we're told. Many people still remain unaccounted for, which means the death toll will likely rise.

The day after this event, there was the Asiana plane crash in San Francisco. Before that, massive flooding in Calgary and High River, Alberta. And the list goes on. Major disasters affecting many people - those who are affected directly and those who go in to help the victims.

Mental health is a funny thing. We can be so strong in the face of such adversity as we work through such events, but then a seemingly small incident can be the last straw and send someone into a place they didn't know existed. For this reason, it is so important to address mental health issues from the start. We have to know that this is a vital part of the whole realm of care that people need.

The American Psychological Association offers a volunteer disaster relief service that responds to disasters across the continent. They have an informative tip sheet for the general public to learn about the psychological effect of disasters: Managing traumatic stress: Tips for recovering from disasters and other traumatic events. It discusses what can happen during and after the event, how different people may respond to the event, how to help yourself, and when you should seek professional help. There is also a post-traumatic growth inventory survey that may help people figure out how they are feeling.

If you are helping others, either in an official capacity or just doing what you can to help out, it's important to take care of yourself too. You know that airline instruction about if you're traveling with a young child or someone who needs help - if oxygen masks drop, place yours on first before the one on the person in your care? That's because that person needs you to be strong enough to help them, so you need the oxygen. It's the same thing with mental health. If you're not mentally healthy, if you're burned out, depressed, anxious about what you've seen and heard, you can't be as effective a helper. So you need to take care of yourself.

The Emergency Social Services site at the British Columbia government website says it well:

"As disaster workers we have the potential to become secondary victims, working long, hard hours under poor conditions. In some cases, physical dangers exist."

The page goes on to give tips on how you can help relieve the stress, even in the midst of chaos.

Remember, that just because the event is over, it doesn't mean that it no longer has an effect. Take care of yourself. Be aware that you may be vulnerable. And most importantly - ask for help. It's the only way people can know that you need them. 

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