Is There Psychological Damage from Irma?

What the experts say about the hurricane’s impact on us all.

BY January 2, 2018


Irma is in the rearview. Congratulate yourself, no matter how you reacted to the storm—whether you stayed home or fled, packed up everything you own or said “To hell with it.” You may have implemented a perfect plan, or perhaps you screamed or cried or were still saying “What hurricane?” during an evacuation order.

You’re reading this, which means you got through it. You are wiser on many levels. That’s according to local mental health counselors and a researcher who participated in a study of Hurricane Katrina survivors.

“For people who have gone through Irma, they will be stronger and wiser,” says Sarah Lowe, an assistant professor of psychology involved in that study. “Events like this build strength, stamina, awareness and wisdom.”

There’s anecdotal backup from Southwest Floridians, as well.

“The recent tragedies have also solidified our faith in each other and ability to actually survive a catastrophic event,” wrote Fort Myers resident Jennifer McWhinnie in a Facebook post.

That kind of confidence showed up in the RISK (Resilience in Survivors of Katrina) study, which has gained considerable attention and reinforced the idea that growth often coexists with stress and grief during recovery from a crisis.

Lowe, now at Monclair State University in New Jersey, joined the study of more than 1,000 women before and in the years since Hurricane Katrina while she was a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts.

Greater personal strength was a main area of growth seen in these Katrina survivors. Many survivors enjoyed improvement in relationships (or were able to end unhealthy ones) and a greater appreciation for life. They often saw new possibilities for their lives in the aftermath. It took that tragic jolt to motivate them to grow.

This theory of “post-traumatic growth” began bubbling up in the ’90s. The RISK study reinforces the idea and is the first to follow and demonstrate it in subjects for two decades.

So even if you’re still not feeling like yourself, don’t worry, as long as that stress isn’t disrupting your life.

Is there still debris in the neighborhood? Damage to the roof? Water damage somewhere? These stressors add to those inherent in everyday life. The truth is, the whole nation may be a little off-balance right now, local therapists say.

“We’re in a kind of community mass-hysteria right now, waiting for the other shoe to drop,” says Jeanie Simpson, a licensed mental health counselor in Cape Coral. “There’s a kind of mounting pressure as one stressor comes on top of another. The Las Vegas shooting, the situation in North Korea, abuses of women by men in power, what the president does and says, it’s all working on people now.”

Directly afterward, Irma actually mitigated that sense of pervasive doom in many clients, says Angela Lopez, a psychotherapist and outpatient clinical supervisor for the David Lawrence Center. “For those individuals who didn’t experience a dramatic loss, if their basic needs continue to be met, then indeed growth can go on.” Clients realized that there really is help available. Their faith in humanity was restored.

Many people actively struggling with other issues can gain focus in this type of crisis, said Laura Guarino, community action team clinical manager for SalusCare. “(Clients) were forced to cope with situations beyond their control. So they worked with their families and the natural supports they had, like the community and their friends, and got through it.”

With Irma bearing down, “they weren’t focused on their primary problems and they had to take one day at a time”—which is the best way to disengage from any addiction or acute stressor.

But “one day at a time” is challenging. A contagion can take hold in a crisis, says Stacey Brown, a licensed mental health counselor in Fort Myers. “People who have never been through this were in hunter-gatherer mode,” she says. Some were panicking and scurrying about to stock up before the storm was anywhere near. People around them then get anxious.

Brown says she noticed that “people who had been investing in self-care seemed to have more confidence in their decisions and were better able to focus and get things done.”

People also had to confront their acquisitiveness.

“Just about everybody who goes through a hurricane thinks, ‘Wow, I have too much stuff,’” Brown says. “So there’s a purification that goes on.

“It’s almost like a controlled burn. After big changes in life, you’re laid off, get divorced, you look at your surroundings differently. There’s an evaluation that goes on, and that’s a very positive thing.”

Unfortunately, though, “typical coping skills often don’t work for people whose basic needs (for things like food and shelter) aren’t met,” Guarino says.

SalusCare facilities closed for a week for Irma. During that time, the main contact line received so many messages from people seeking help that the recording space was exhausted, Guarino says.

But afterward, “Ninety five out of 100 people have told me they learned to be grateful for what they have,” says Dr. Adrienne Eisner, a psychiatrist and medical director for outpatient services at SalusCare.

If only that feeling didn’t tend to be fleeting.

“Part of the process of therapy is to help people hold onto that feeling,” Lopez says.


Try This

For do-it-yourselfers, here are some takeaways from local counselors that may help before, during and after a future crisis.


• Stay connected with family and friends as a kind of emotional insurance.

• Take care of yourself and maintain healthy habits to stay grounded.

• Distract yourself by doing things you like while you are anticipating the stress of a hurricane or other traumatic event, and afterward. Go to the gym, go to the movies, spend time with pets or outdoors.

During and after:

• Don’t spend too much time on social media. “With such different stories and different versions of everything, social media tended to exacerbate people’s fears” during the recent hurricane, Guarino says.

• Stay around people with whom you feel comfortable. “I’m not a believer in blood being thicker than water,” Eisner says. “Friends can be more valuable than family.”

• Do not watch the news or a weather channel or check a weather app continuously. Of course you’ll want to stay informed if you need to make decisions, but it’s not necessary to be glued to a device to do that.

• Be aware of your own moods and patterns of behavior and try to regulate your emotions. Acknowledge and accept the fact that you may be off balance. If you used substances you were trying to quit or otherwise backslid on a health program, forgive yourself and get back on track. You’ll be stronger now.


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