Wounds from tragedy not just physical

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

These wounds cannot be seen or felt or touched. But they are just as painful as those that can.

Mental health officials said victims of Friday’s tornado can endure the same emotional effects as soldiers in wars. And the mental toll of surviving a disaster can be triggered weeks or months after the disaster occurs and can last a lifetime, they said.

“(Disaster victims) have an emotional wound — a wound that has attacked their sensitivities, their sense of sight, sense of hearing,” said Robert Bell, executive director of Mental Health Resources of Clovis.

Clovis resident Joyce Wolfe, 72, survived a tornado in Texas years ago.

“Now, whenever it starts thundering and lightning, I get jittery,” she said.

Wolfe heard sirens blasting Friday in Clovis — a warning of the approaching tornado — and hid with her great-granddaughter underneath a bed.

Her great-granddaughter, Caitlynn Almond, 9, sat on the great-grandmother’s porch Wednesday. She wrapped her arms tightly around her Wolfe’s neck as the two talked about how close the tornado came to their home, which is blocks from the spot where a trailer slammed into and cracked open a bowling alley.

“The lights went out. It was a loud clattering and clanging,” Caitlynn gushed. “My neighbor said we can hide in her basement the next time this happens.”

Every person who survives disasters deals with it differently, according to Bell and other mental health officials.

Many times, months pass until people realize how deeply they’ve been affected, Bell said. The shock of a disaster and the flurry of activity that usually follows, such as cleaning up, can mask the emotional pain of suddenly losing possessions, homes, cars, and a sense of safety, he said.

Often, delayed stress can set in about seven to 12 days after a disaster occurs, mental health officials said.

That stress sometimes leads to a more serious condition, called Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which is an anxiety disorder associated with experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event.

The emotional plight of soldiers who returned from wars, especially the Vietnam War, helped build knowledge of PTSD.

Disaster survivors often experience “the same thing soldiers in war went through,” said Mac McNell, an American Red Cross coordinator from San Antonio, Texas, who is in Clovis to aid tornado victims.

So far, less than 20 Clovis tornado victims have sought mental health services through the Red Cross and Mental Health Resources, according to officials with those organizations. That is a sliver of those who were affected.

More than 500 homes and businesses were damaged in the tornado, the worst in Clovis’ history. About 75 homes were destroyed, according to the latest figures. One person has died and 35 were injured.

Roughly 70 damaged homes are still occupied because people refuse to leave, Red Cross officials said. They are scared to leave possessions behind, they said.

Red Cross officials hope victims will take advantage of mental health and other resources in the wake of the storm.

Seeking mental help following a disaster “scares a lot of people, but it shouldn’t,” said Marge Creager, an American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer and certified counselor.

Creager, who been a Red Cross volunteer for 60 years, said disaster victims go through emotional phases, much like a person who has lost a loved one. They experience shock; they are grateful they survived.

“After they’ve see all they’ve lost, the tears come,” she said.

“Sometimes,” she said, “people just want to talk… Sometimes, what they need is a good hug.”

A tumult of emotions are normal following a disaster, but if they interfere with daily activities or become all-consuming, professional help should be sought, mental health officials said.

“If an individual finds themselves … questioning whether they can cope, it’s foolish to postpone seeing a professional,” Bell said.

Need help?
If you would like to talk to someone about mental health resources for tornado victims, you can call Mental Health Resources, Inc. at 769-2345 or the American Red Cross Zia Service Center at 763-4129.

How do children cope with trauma?
Parents of tornado victims should remember children are especially sensitive to trauma such as tornadoes, according to American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer and certified counselor Marge Creager.

Often, children under the age of 5 will exhibit regressions in behavior following a trauma, Creager said. For example, potty-trained children may begin to wet the bed or bottle-weaned children may yearn for a bottle. Some children may want to sleep in bed with their parents or become more prone to temper tantrums or crying.

“These children know they’ve lost something,” Creager said.

Parents should be extra attentive to the needs of children following a disaster, she said. Children should not be left alone, she said.

“Make them feel that they are OK,” Creager said.

Common reactions after trauma:
—Relief to be alive, followed by stress, fear, and anger.
—An inability to stop thinking about what happened.
—Feeling hopeless about the future and detached or unconcerned about others
— Having trouble concentrating, indecisiveness
—Jumpy and startled easily at sudden noise
—On guard and constantly alert
—Having disturbing dreams or flashbacks
—Work or school problems
—Stomach upset, trouble eating
—Trouble sleeping and exhaustion
—Pounding heart, rapid breathing, edginess
—Severe headache if thinking of the event, sweating
—Failure to engage in exercise, diet, safe sex, regular health care
—Excess smoking, alcohol, drugs, food
—Worsening of chronic medical problems
—Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad
—Feeling shock, numb, unable to experience love or joy
—Avoiding people, places, and things related to the event
—Being irritable or outbursts of anger
—Becoming easily upset or agitated
—Self-blame or negative views of oneself or the world
—Distrust of others, conflict, being over controlling
—Withdrawal, feeling rejected or abandoned
—Loss of intimacy or feeling detached For most, if these symptoms occur, they will slowly decrease over time.

Most trauma survivors experience common stress reactions. These reactions may last for several days or even a few weeks. Lean on personal support systems, family and friends. Recovery is an ongoing, gradual process.

Most people will recover from trauma naturally. If emotional reactions get in the way of relationships, work, or other activities, you may want to talk to a counselor or your doctor.

Source: United States
Department of Veterans Affairs