Mental health pros give support, coping tips to flood victimsFor many, the Northland flood of 2012 was a temporary inconvenience. But for others, the damage was far more severe and long-lasting.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
For many, the Northland flood of 2012 was a temporary inconvenience. But for others — like the people in the Fond du Lac neighborhood, the communities of Moose Lake, Barnum and Thomson, and people who live on inland lakes northwest of Duluth — the damage was far more severe and long-lasting.
Some residents might never be able to return to their homes. Others face massive cleanup projects, and they may have lost irreplaceable family treasures.
“It’s real common to experience a wide range of reactions that you might not normally be experiencing,” said Nancy Carlson, behavioral health program coordinator in the Office of Emergency Preparedness for the Minnesota Department of Health. “They might include fear and confusion.”
The good news, according to a variety of mental health experts, is not only that those feelings are normal, but that the vast majority of people will get through it without long-term harm.
“We’ve really learned over the past decades of studying disaster that resilience is the norm,” said Kit O’Neill, a clinical psychologist in Fargo, N.D., who has been a Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer for 20 years.
“Most people find their resilience in times of disaster and learn something important about themselves and their ability to manage stress.”
The Three R’s
O’Neill has helped people live through several floods in recent years in the Red River Valley. She was part of establishing a support group called Red River Resilience, which offers resources to people in other places dealing with disaster.
O’Neill recommends Three R’s for getting through the stress of a disaster. Although other experts broke down their advice differently, much of it fit into these three categories:
Getting rest doesn’t just mean getting sleep, said Carolyn Phelps, a psychologist with the Human Development Center in Duluth.
“It’s OK to take breaks from dealing with flood stuff if you can,” Phelps said. “You can’t live that 24 hours a day. So it’s OK to go for a walk. It’s OK to do something that gives you a sense of peace and contentment.”
“For children it can be especially helpful to re-establish a routine that includes some playtime and a comforting bedtime routine,” she added.
Carl F. Weems, a psychology professor at the University of New Orleans, has been involved in several studies examining the effects of Hurricane Katrina on individuals. His conclusion about how to cope: “Try to get back to a normal routine as soon as possible,” Weems wrote in an e-mail.
Several experts mentioned the importance of exercise.
“Make time for the normal healthy stress-management strategies that you typically would use, because you need that now more than ever,” Phelps said.
“The No. 1 thing we know is that people need the perception that other people care,” said Bill Maloney, a certified trauma specialist who is director of psychological health for the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth.
“The second thing is to be able to tell their story to somebody,” Maloney said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean group therapy. It can be sitting around the coffeepot.”
Dr. Mona Khanna, a Chicago physician who serves on the National Disaster Medical System for the U.S. Department of Human Services, agrees.
“The most powerful and most effective coping mechanism is a support system,” Khanna said. “They want to surround themselves not only with family, but with friends.”
People are eager to help, Phelps said, and they can provide it in a variety of ways.
“There’s some people who are really good at dealing with insurance companies,” she said. “If you’re not one of those people, figure out who in your life is and have them call for you.”
On the ground
People in the Northland aren’t always good about asking for help, Phelps said. But two Red Cross volunteers who are specialists in the mental health aspects of disasters have been in the region during the past week are proactive in providing counsel.
One of those is Larry Martens, 68, whose gentle drawl sounds as friendly as the name of the town he’s from: Welcome Home, Ark.
Martens arrived on June 23 and has gotten to know the Northland in a hurry. He has visited flood victims in Sandstone, Moose Lake, Willow River and Sturgeon Lake as well as in the Fond du Lac neighborhood. He and his colleague knock on doors, asking people how they’re getting along, Martens said. They also respond as other volunteers call their attention to people in crisis situations. And they serve as counselors to the volunteers, who also are in the midst of a stressful situation.
In his four years as a Red Cross volunteer, the former Veterans Administration addiction therapist has been deployed 11 times, including responses to the tornado in Joplin, Mo., and the flood in Minot, N.D., last year.
“Mainly it’s dealing with stress,” Martens said in describing his role. “You know: ‘We’ve got 900 things looking at us. Where do I start?’ So that’s a big part of our job is helping people deal with daily stress … and convincing people they can’t get it all done in one day.”
Most flood victims in the Northland have a positive outlook, Martens said.
“When we go out, we usually have water and some other stuff in the car,” he related. “We ask them, ‘Well, do you need anything?’ ‘Oh, no. Other people got it worse than we do.’ That is one of the most common greetings we get. … And, you know, that’s something I never argue with.”
The other 2 percent
Most people — perhaps 98 percent — will get through the crisis with a little help from their friends, Martens said. But a few people will need more help than that, and more help than he can provide in a 15-minute counseling session.
Khanna has seen people pushed beyond the breaking point. Although she’s busy practicing occupational medicine and as medical consultant for the Fox TV station in Chicago, she also has served in response to numerous disasters during the past 14 years. Among them were the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City; hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005; the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2005; the Haiti earthquake in 2010; and the Japanese tsunami last year.
Professional help is needed, Khanna said, when anxiety and depression continue and disrupt lifestyles.
Symptoms include crying, becoming very upset, clinging to family members, trouble sleeping, nightmares, trouble eating and inability to enjoy the activities that used to bring enjoyment, Khanna said.
It’s normal to experience some of those things in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, Phelps said. If they last for more than two weeks, it may be time to seek help.
“For the majority of the population, time will heal,” Phelps said. “That’s a really cool thing in any crisis, with any traumatic event; most people get through this OK.”
Down the road
But mental stress from the disaster might set in long after the event, Maloney said.
“What we know about disaster is that there’s a certain phase three or six months on where there will be that sense of loss,” he said.
Even though the family is safe and the house is secure, someone might suddenly start to grieve possessions lost in the flood, such as wedding pictures, Maloney said.
“All disasters bring about loss and change,” he said. “You will have that natural grieving process.”
Jackie Crawford of Fargo, who was forced from her home when the Red River flooded in 1997, said she experienced a sense of disillusionment long after she and her husband returned home. “Things never work out as you think they are supposed to,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Even years later, anniversaries of the flood trigger vivid recollections, Crawford said.
Martens, who is deployed at disaster scenes for an average of two weeks, said he needs a breather himself when he returns to Arkansas. He teared up when talking about his work in Joplin, where he supervised a team of 10 mental health counselors. Being a professional doesn’t insulate him from the effects of disaster, Martens said.
“You cannot go to one of these without being affected,” he said. “And usually it’s in a good way, because you see the strength in the people that you’re dealing with, and you feel for their losses.”