Mental health and natural disasters

Survivors of natural disasters require psychosocial support in addition to their basic medical, housing and financial needs

We rushed towards the door of the restaurant. Having lived in the foothills, my friends and I were all used to the tremors, but this was on a different scale. Never had I felt the ground beneath my feet shake the way it did that afternoon. Out in the streets, we could still see people filing out of buildings – moving away from them to the middle of the road. These intense tremors lasted longer than any I had ever experienced. By the time they ended (they lasted about sixty seconds as I learned later, but it felt a lot longer), the streets were full of people.

Fortunately, there wasn't much damage, a few cracks in some old buildings. As we sat there, huddled in the middle of the road, waiting for the aftershocks, the initial shock subsided and a sense of relief came over us. We were safe. An hour or so later, after having checked in on our families over the phone, we decided to venture into the older parts of the town to help out. We had heard that the damage was far worse in those areas; but nothing had prepared us for what we were about to see.

The scenic Old Town area we once knew had been reduced to dust and rubble. People were scampering around through all the debris, looking for people who may be trapped. I was overcome by a deep sense of guilt. We joined a group of people, who were trying to look for trapped survivors. Walking through the narrow alleys, I was ashamed that we hadn't spared a thought for the less fortunate. The shock and horror returned and everything felt chilly all of a sudden.

When I returned home that evening, I felt disconnected; my parents were relieved to see me, but I was just numb. They understood that I needed some space and let me be. I barely slept that night.

It's been three months since the earthquake and the city still hasn't regained a sense of normalcy. There are still people living out in tents because they're afraid of returning to a brick house. Thankfully, the civic situation has improved considerably, food and water supplies are no longer in shortage, electricity and running water is also functional. A friend of ours, Akash, who lives just outside Old Town has been affected quite badly. He was at home when the quake happened, and witnessed firsthand most of the devastation that took place. Akash's mother says that he barely sleeps these days. On more than one occasion, he has complained of experiencing the tremors in his sleep. She says he's lost his appetite and is always locked away in his room. Akash's father says that he is just shaken up and he will get over it. Akash's mother doesn't know what to do. We try to go over to Akash's place as often as we can. He's definitely lost his enthusiasm, but we try to keep the mood light... 

This fictional narrative has been constructed with the help of experts, to aid the understanding of the topic by placing it in a real life situation. 

Yes, disaster survivors require psychosocial support

Everyone who has experienced a natural disaster is affected by it and needs support, it is only the degree of support that differs. Some people are able to cope better with the variety of emotions that they experience during and in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Survivors usually experience a mix of the following emotions:

  • Shock
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Vigilance
  • Intrusive memories and flashbacks
  • Sadness and despair

These emotions are experienced by almost everyone who survives an unforeseen event. Over time, most people are able to cope with them. However, there are many who cannot and go on to suffer more distress in the form of mental health issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sleep disorders and substance abuse.

Psychosocial support is also essential, considering the situations that the person has just been through. They may have gone through a near-death experience, they might have lost a family member or friend, their home may have been destroyed. To add to this, there are  various physical health risks and possible challenges in procuring food and water. Not every person is mentally or emotionally equipped to cope with such stresses.

Note: People who survive calamities and other such events may not feel the traumatic effects immediately. They may take a while to develop, so it is important to be patient and sensitive to a survivor's feelings for some time after the event. If these persist beyond a few months, the survivor may require psychosocial intervention.

In the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, people may need help with:

  • Finding friends and family as they might get separated, or taken to separate relief sites.
  • Talking about the disaster and sharing traumatic experiences can help in the long run, it reduces the sense of loneliness.
  • They may be overwhelmed by the number of problems they are about to face; helping them prioritize their issues and comforting them is also important.

If a friend or family member of yours has survived a natural disaster, here's what you can do:

  • Be supportive and patient. Understand that they have just been through a very traumatic event.
  • Do not avoid talking about the event, but do not be pushy. Sharing their experiences can help them reduce their trauma but it is a sensitive topic.
  • Understand that emotional and social withdrawal are normal.
  • Encourage them to meet a counselor if they are unable to cope with the emotional distress for a long period of time.