Disaster Strikes: Taking Care of Our—and Our Children's—Mental Health

Disaster Strikes: Taking Care of Our—and Our Children's—Mental Health

For residents of New Jersey this has been a trying week or so. The Davison household was no exception as I awoke early Sunday morning to my daughter screaming, “Oh my God, there is something on fire!” Actually, her language was a bit more colorful, but this is a family blog. Colorful or not she was accurate as downed electrical wires danced and exploded in the street. The bright light and intensity of the electrical fire was both frightening and awe-inspiring. Fortunately due to the great work of West Caldwell’s finest and bravest (the police and fire departments) no one was hurt. We were in the dark for a few days, but thankfully, that turned out to be a minor inconvenience. Many of New Jersey’s residents faced much worse. The recent earthquake seemed preferable to this mayhem!

Naturally, in times of disaster, first things must come first. Those things include; shelter, food, water and medical care. What is often overlooked is the mental health aspect of a natural disaster. This is unfortunate, as to do so may cause preventable trauma.

The fact is our area has been hit by a natural disaster; and you are probably trying to make sense of what happened and deal with the stress of the situation. These events create a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety for those directly and indirectly affected. In the days and weeks following the disaster, you may begin to have some of these common reactions:

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·         Disbelief and shock

·         Fear and anxiety about the future

·         Disorientation; difficulty making decisions or concentrating

·         Apathy and emotional numbing

·         Nightmares and reoccurring thoughts about the event

·         Irritability and anger

·         Sadness and depression

·         Feeling powerless

·         Changes in eating patterns; loss of appetite or overeating

·         Crying for “no apparent reason”

·         Headaches, back pains and stomach problems

·         Difficulty sleeping or falling asleep

·         Increased use of alcohol and drugs

It is "normal" to have difficulty managing your feelings after major traumatic events. However, if you do not deal with the stress, it can be harmful to your mental and physical health. Here are some tips for coping in these difficult times:

·         Talk about it.By talking with others about the event, you can relieve stress and realize that others share your feelings.

·         Spend time with friends and family. They can help you through this tough time. If your family lives outside the area, stay in touch by phone. If you have any children, encourage them to share their concerns and feelings about the disaster with you.

·         Take care of yourself.Get plenty of rest and exercise, and eat properly.

·         Limit exposure to images of the disaster.Watching or reading about the event repeatedly will only increase your stress.

·         Find time for activities you enjoy. Read a book, go for a walk, catch a movie or do something else you find enjoyable. These healthy activities can help you get your mind off the disaster and keep the stress in check.

·         Take one thing at a time.For people under stress, an ordinary workload can sometimes seem unbearable. Pick one urgent task and work on it. Once you accomplish that task, choose the next one. “Checking off” tasks will give you a sense of accomplishment and make things feel less overwhelming.

·         Do something positive.Give blood, prepare “care packages” for people who have lost relatives or their homes, or volunteer in a rebuilding effort. Helping other people can give you a sense of purpose in a situation that feels "out of your control."

·         Avoid drugs and excessive drinking. Drugs and alcohol may temporarily seem to remove stress, but in the end, they generally create additional problems that compound the stress you were already feeling.

·         Ask for help when you need it. If your feelings do not go away or are so intense that they interfere with your ability to function in daily life, talk with a trusted relative, friend, doctor or spiritual advisor about getting help. Make an appointment with a mental health professional to discuss how well you are coping with the recent events. You could also join a support group. Do not try to cope alone. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

Being There for our Children:

Children sense the anxiety and tension in adults around them. Moreover, like adults, children experience the same feelings of helplessness and lack of control that disaster-related stress can bring about. Unlike adults, however, children have little experience to help them place their current situation into perspective.

Each child responds differently to a disaster, depending on his or her understanding and maturity, but it’s easy to see how an event like this can create a great deal of anxiety in children of all ages because they will interpret the disaster as a personal danger to themselves and those they care about.

Whatever the child’s age or relationship to the damage caused by the disaster, it is important that you be open about the consequences for your family, and that you encourage him or her to talk about it.

Quick Tips for Parents

·         Children need comforting and frequent reassurance that they are safe make sure they get it.

·         Be honest and open about the disaster.

·         Encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.

·         Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.

Pre-School Age Children

Behavior such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking, baby talk, or a fear of sleeping alone may intensify in some younger children, or reappear in children who had previously outgrown them. They may complain of very real stomach cramps or headaches, and be reluctant to go to school. It is important to remember that these children are not "being bad" —they are afraid. Here are some suggestions to help them cope with their fears:

·         Reassure young children that they are safe. Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night, by telephoning during the day and with extra physical comforting.

·         Get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the disaster. Discuss the disaster with them and find out each child’s particular fears and concerns. Answer all questions they may ask and provide them loving comfort and care. You can structure children’s play so that it remains constructive, serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.

Grade-School Age Children

Children this age may ask many questions about the disaster, and it is important that you try to answer them in clear and simple language. If a child is concerned about a parent who is distressed, do not tell a child not to worry—doing so will just make him or her worry more.

Here are several important things to remember with school-age children:

·         False reassurance does not help this age group. Don’t say a disaster will never affect your family again; children will know this is not true. Instead, say, “You’re safe now and I’ll always try to protect you"—or—"Adults are working very hard to make things safe.” Remind children that disasters are very rare. Children’s fears often get worse around bedtime, so you might want to stick around until the child falls asleep in order to make him or her feel protected.

·         Monitor children’s media viewing. Images of the disaster and the damage are extremely frightening to children, so consider limiting the amount of media coverage they see. A good way to do this without calling attention to your own concern is to regularly schedule an activity—story reading, drawing or letter writing, for example—during news shows.

·         Allow them to express themselves through play or drawing. As with younger children, school-age children sometimes find comfort in expressing themselves through playing games or drawing scenes of the tragedy. Allowing them to do so, and then talking about it, gives you the chance to "re-tell" the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.

·         Do not be afraid to say, "I don’t know." Part of keeping discussion of the disaster open and honest is not being afraid to say you do not know how to answer a child’s question. When such an occasion arises, explain to your child that disasters are extremely rare, and they cause feelings that even adults have trouble dealing with. Temper this by explaining that, even so, adults will always work very hard to keep children safe and secure.


Encourage these youth to work out their concerns about the disaster. Adolescents may try to downplay their worries. It is generally a good idea to talk about these issues, keeping the lines of communication open and remaining honest about the financial, physical and emotional impact of the disaster on your family. When adolescents are frightened, they may express their fear through acting out or regressing to younger habits.

·         Children with existing emotional problems, such as depression, may require careful supervision and additional support.

·         Monitor their media exposure to the event and information they receive on the Internet.

·         Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and families to get together and discuss the event to allay fears.

I hope you find this short discussion on the mental health impacts of a natural disaster helpful. The good news is that individuals, families and entire communities can thrive in the face of the most challenging of times. To do so we must care for each other and ourselves, including our mental health.

For more information on this or any other mental matter, please contact the Mental Health Association of Essex County, Inc. at 973-509-9777 or reach us on-line at www.mhaessex.org

 The Guest Column is our readers' opportunity to write about a given issue or topic in an in-depth and educational manner.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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