Mental Health of Families Displaced by Hurricane Sandy

It may be the start of a New Year, but for many families from across the NY/NJ region reconstruction, building debris and construction crews are daily reminders of Hurricane Sandy. The media covered the events surrounding Sandy for months, but although the reporting has died down, the personal and emotional loss felt by many remains.

Personally, I was affected by the storm when my Little Silver, NJ office was flooded. For the first month or so following the storm, I worked on the second floor of the building, but the smell of floodwater, demolition noise from contractors and the potential health risks from mold and bacteria made it impossible for me to remain. Within my professional network, I did something I would never have normally done; I reached out to my member association and placed an inquiry for office space. The responses were overwhelming. I was struck by the kindness of strangers, who offered office space at little or no cost. Today, I have secured temporary office space however I am still experiencing a sense of disconnect.

What does all this anxiety and stress mean for displaced families? Many lost personal property, pets and irreplaceable family heirlooms. People are still picking up the pieces as backordered building materials and insurance monies slowly arrive. Houses on many neighborhood streets remain empty and dark, making for lonely winter days for those who stayed behind. And, many are renting in unfamiliar towns or living with friends and relatives under a whole new set of rules and routines.

Some individuals may also experience Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). This form of psychic distress is characterized by the development of severe anxiety and other symptoms that occur within one month after exposure to the storm. As a response to the traumatic event, the individual develops dissociative symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, feeling detached from their bodies, experiencing the world as unreal or dreamlike, or have difficulty recalling specific details of the traumatic event. Individuals with Acute Stress Disorder also experience a decrease in emotional responsiveness, often finding it difficult or impossible to experience pleasure in previously enjoyable activities and frequently feel guilty about pursuing usual life tasks.

Others may experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a type of anxiety disorder that can occur after you’ve seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death. Hurricane Sandy has affected thousands of people with wide spreading flooding, destroying homes and tearing families apart. There are other conditions besides PTSD that commonly emerge in the days, weeks and months after a disaster. These include depression and anxiety disorders as well as the increase of pre-existing mental and addictive behaviors such as alcoholism and drug abuse.

Not everyone exposed to the trauma of Sandy will develop ASD, PTSD, depression, or an increase in alcohol or drug use. However, those individuals who have been affected can cope by getting sleep, surrounding themselves with family and friends, abstaining from increasing their consumption of alcohol or drugs and  trying to create a new structure for themselves (via daily routines and behaviors). This “new normal” will give them a small sense of comfort and predictability.

What is life like for displaced children?
Children may find it hard to act normally. Boundaries set by parents in their former homes may be harder because their daily routine has been abruptly disturbed. Many children are living with grandparents who have become accustomed to a calmer lifestyle where the sports channel and daytime television once dominated the TV screen. Families are sharing beds and smaller quarters, and some children may even be feeling more anxious. Self-possessed children may be deprived of familiar toys, bedding and clothing and many miss the structure of their family and alone time with mom, dad and siblings. It will take time for children to cope and assimilate so continue to enforce boundaries as you did before the storm. Be patient with them, as they may need some extra TLC and understanding along the way.

How do you move forward?
First, you must take care of yourself and step back to look at the big picture. What is really important? What do I need to address and care for at this moment? Are the people in my life trying to do and be the best they can during this difficult time?

It’s important that your displaced family recovers in 2013 by taking time to reconnect. Take a walk in the fresh air. Take 15 minutes more to soak in the tub. Postpone errands and play with the kids. Enjoy dinner conversation with your spouse. These simple steps can help you to recover with familiar routines and surroundings.

In the end, we should recognize the good after experiencing hardship. So many people have selflessly housed friends and relatives, donated clothing, money and nonperishables and volunteered at local food banks and shelters. All in all, the past few months have brought out the best in us. Neighbors, strangers and family have been so generous with their time, money and support. It’s this sense of community that keeps us moving forward.