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When Disaster Strikes: Taking Care of Your Mental Health

In 2020, California had record-breaking wildfires that burned through almost 9 million acres. This number exceeds the 10-year average in California and nearly doubled the amount of acreage in 2019. Thousands of emergency responders were deployed from across the state and nation, and more than $610 million dollars were spent to try to get the fires under control. In the attempt, emergency responders used enough flame retardant to fill up thirty-one olympic-sized swimming pools. Countless structures were lost, including homes and businesses. Even where lives were not lost, they were certainly impacted.

Natural disasters like these disrupt economic security and social well-being, not to mention they have significant impacts on community and individual mental health. Emergency preparedness is not the only kind of planning to consider. As fire season increases in length and severity, we should also consider emotional preparedness as a way to protect against serious mental health impacts.

Mental Health Impacts of Natural Disasters

Mental illness and natural disasters are known to be closely related, and may predispose a person to anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Having to migrate to other areas is stressful on families and individuals, as they search for adequate and secure housing. Having to worry about housing in general is a stress that could trigger anxiety and depression. Of course, previous or chronic stress can also place someone at risk for developing a mental health condition, such as panic disorder or post-traumatic disorder that requires specialized treatment.

Understandably, post-traumatic stress disorder is the most common psychiatric condition to develop after exposure to a natural disaster. Most people who do experience a natural disaster will recover, and they will return to their normal way of living. However, there are some factors at play that might determine which people and communities develop serious mental health disorders, such as their age, the city and community’s resources, emergency preparedness, safe and adequate housing, financial resources, and the quality of their social supports.
wildfires like this one in california had a big impact on mental health

The Biopsychosocial Model

Researchers and psychologists alike will say that mental health disorders occur from a combination of biological or genetic factors, psychological factors, and environmental factors. This view is taken from the “biopsychosocial model”. This model understands that there are biological factors which contribute to mental stress and illness, such as genetics as well as neurochemicals which influence activity in the brain. Beyond this, environmental factors include social influences derived from our culture and communities. When looking at an individual’s experience after going through a natural disaster, assessing these factors allows us to have a greater understanding of the impact of the event.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

People were not created with the mental and emotional capacity to go through and witness such tragedy. We are not prepared to deal with the stress of seeing such devastation and loss. It is senseless, and as such, it is almost impossible to make sense of. As a result, many who survive natural disasters will experience long-term symptoms of stress such as:

  • Nightmares
  • Hypervigilance
  • Avoidance of reminders
  • Disruption in their sleep
  • Feeling numb or disconnected
  • A feeling of distrustfulness, fear, or pessimism
  • Irritability, trouble concentrating, memory problems

Who Is Affected Most?

Vulnerable populations are most affected by the consequences of any kind of disaster, but especially natural disasters. Impoverished communities are at most risk because these areas usually lack the resources to create reliable structures, have emergency response services, and often do not have the resources to rebuild. Communities and individuals who don’t have these resources will suffer far greater than those who can recover quickly. These communities are more likely to experience homelessness, especially as people in poverty don’t always have the ability to rely on savings when something unexpected disrupts their earnings and livelihood.

Children and the elderly are also highly affected by natural disasters. Children are not used to seeing tragedy and aren’t able to comprehend and integrate the experience of what is happening in the same way adults can. Also, children may not be able to articulate or verbalize their stress, and so they often have a more difficult time processing the event and have trouble coping. However, children are also very resilient, especially when they have reliable people in their corners who listen, validate, and help them make sense of their own feelings.

Women and girls are also more likely to suffer the effects of stress than boys. Having a close family member who is suffering with stress is also a risk factor. In contrast, social supports are most helpful and most protective against developing serious psychiatric conditions.

Lastly, first responders as well as their families are greatly impacted by natural disasters. First responders are first on the scene of any emergency and are first to be exposed to all parts of the disaster. Post-traumatic stress, depression, and even suicidal ideation are common mental health concerns that affect first responders, including police officers, firefighters, and emergency response providers.

Taking care of your Mental Health

If there is any silver lining to natural disasters, it is found in the research that describes how cities, communities, and individuals find resilience in the wake of a disaster. Seeking support and relying on social bonds are incredibly important avenues for resilience to bloom, and can often make the difference between healthy coping and developing a more serious mental health disorder.

If you or a loved one is experiencing stress or has been affected by any kind of natural disaster, reach out for help. One of our clinicians would be happy to offer their support through this difficult time.