Disaster Mental Health–for a Mental Health Disaster

Crazy politics have reached a new high-water mark. Or new low, depending how you look at it. The enduring mental health impact on citizens seems to run the gamut, from general malaise to falling apart at the seams. Could this be the true “disaster?”

This one old disaster mental health soldier suggests yes, it is.

But all is not lost. Simply recognizing the situation to be a disaster is the key first step in overcoming it.

What Makes It a Disaster?

Relief organizations define disaster as incidents that exceed a community’s ability to cope by usual means. Thanks to social media and traditional news outlets alike, we need not look far to find community coping that isn’t doing so hot. Chinks in our collective armor are as pervasive as during the Events of September 11th, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Even those convinced that a Molotov cocktail was the only answer to DC gridlock suffer from its aftermath. The malady flourishes on both sides of the fence.

Reams of guidelines address run-of-the-mill natural and man-made disasters. But the system does not have an SOP for disaster healing when the system itself causes disaster.

Identifying how to reduce this unique brand of mass suffering requires thinking outside the box. So as often happens in disaster, we punt.

Nuts and Bolts

The basic thumbnail sketch of mental health disaster recovery doesn’t change much: reduce disaster stress, pump up coping. This, we can do.

A good way to start is by looking at:

  1. lack of control over stressors, and
  2. inability to predict when they will happen.

According to social science, this dynamic duo is what most intensifies the experience of stress. It’s also much of what we’re getting these days—sudden, unpredictable, uncontrollable Twitter or other behaviors from leadership, liberally sprinkled with lashing out and confusing “alternative facts.” Little wonder we struggle.

On the bright side, establishing reliable information about what’s going on around us increases chances of both control and predictability. The following road map provides one path for seeking personal control and predictability during this not-yet-declared mental health disaster.

Stepping onto the Recovery Path

First off, set aside worries that feeling stirred up means something’s wrong with you. No inner experience following disaster is considered “abnormal,” even if it’s thoughts or feelings you’ve never before experienced. We all react and cope the best way we know how. If stress management turns into the apple cart getting uncomfortably wobbly, FEMA, the American Red Cross, mental health organizations, and many others provide excellent resources for coping with disaster. Links are listed at the end of this article.

Next, put to rest what I call the “Bob Newhart effect.” Remember his old comedy shtick, where he feels like the only sane man in an insane world? All the while appearing worried that maybe he’s really the crazy one. Well, take heart, all you Bob Newharts out there. The proverbial Ph.D. isn’t required to assess this one, and mental health professionals agree with your concerns. Something off-kilter is indeed afoot. And the problem is not with you.

This certainly isn’t an uplifting message. Nor is it comforting to have to acknowledge that something important is seriously messed up. Not to mention that we’re forced to live with it for the time being.

However, knowing where we stand is critical to predictability and control. An expected blow has less impact than a sucker punch; slings and arrows bounce off armor that has been reinforced, rather than creating new chinks. Denying existence of the incoming cannot make the reality of it go away.

Our best bet is to expect and prepare for more of the same, each in our own way. Truth be told, our natural resilience is already doing this behind the scenes, experimenting with ways to cope when traversing the unimaginable.

We can do it. And we often find ways to do it well. For trauma does not produce stress alone. It also produces post-traumatic growth. We can use this to our advantage.

Sense of Control

To revive personal empowerment, there are the usual options for when political circumstances play a role:

  • voting practices
  • volunteering with social causes
  • running for office
  • supporting others who seek office

For those so inclined, marches and peaceful demonstrations both communicate concerns and help you know you’ve done what you can. Also, sending views directly to Congress not only helps manage personal stress, but may significantly contribute to the future. Who knows? If everybody demanded that a psychiatric look-see be part of the medical evaluation for determining fitness to command-in-chief, maybe it would come to pass.

Stigma may well prevent such an outcome. But making such suggestions is one sure way to exercise control where influence can be attempted, which in itself reduces stress and revives sense of empowerment.

By the same token, choosing wisely when reacting to others’ anger helps us take control—which brings us to effective disaster coping.

Social Connections and Healing

Social connectedness is the kingpin to disaster coping and recovery, not to mention critical to good health in general, both physical and mental. Unfortunately, the divisiveness embedded in Trojan Horse messages from the top annihilate social connections, as life-long relationships get slashed to pieces by whatever verbal fencing follows. Thus such Twitter messaging delivers a double whammy: first an assault against human sensitivities and intellect, then robbing us of our greatest resource for coping with its aftermath.

Our Inner Armor

Mercifully, the most valuable coping asset we have is one that nobody can take away from us.

Compassion—compassion for those with opposing positions, for perpetrators of major discord, and especially for ourselves. Hostility and compassion cannot stand together in the same inner space. One or the other must step aside. We get the choice over which to give reign.

I can hear it now. “Yeah right, Doc. Where’s compassion to be found in this mess?”

Engaging Compassion

Compassionate caring is something you turn on, not wait for it to turn up. You find it by tapping into empathy for others’ inner states, instead of defending against their angry opinion sharing. Even if you disagree or are put off by ranting or raging, you can still find compassion for this reality: they experience so much fear, they momentarily see no choice other than to fall back on protective inner mechanisms, knee-jerk reactions that reliably spark defensiveness and pepper an angry thesis.

Consider this: How exactly would you expect current developments to affect your friends’ or family members’ inner workings, given what you know about their individual worldviews or life situations? These days so much is turbulent and uncertain, even downright scary, especially for some.

Always keep in mind that when loved ones, comrades, or even strangers on the Internet double down on defenses, it’s more to do with emotional survival than making personal attacks. It indicates fear is so great as to cause falling back on gut reactions and polar absolutes.

Nurturing Your Supportive Network

When angry encounters occur, engage empathy and compassion by stepping back and non-judgmentally listening; refrain from letting your own defensiveness step in. This path is healing for sharer and listener alike, reviving caring connectedness for both.

Likewise, consider the roots feeding anyone given to habitual angry and insensitive outbursts. What unfortunate life experiences, genetics or developmental challenges fuel this seeming absence of compassion? Why does the afflicted feel safe only by employing extreme outbursts? And, would any of us do better in his or her situation?

Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, we can empathize with the plight of being forced to live with whatever inner demons are prodding a tortured soul’s rant.

Heal Thyself

Don’t forget to spare compassion for your own state. There’s nothing weak or condescending about giving yourself an occasional “there, there, now.” We’ve been through a lot. Only sizable analysis and future history books are likely to get us to anywhere near the bottom of how this current Twilight Zone came to pass. But not knowing the final outcome does not keep us from using our strengths to provide comfort in the present.

Likewise, others’ inner demons need not be given free reign to dismantle our personal strengths. We can’t control what others say or do. But we always have choices of our own, including how we let a dysfunctional socio-political era impact ourselves and those we hold dear.

For more information on coping with disaster stress, see the following resources:

Merry Resilience to All!

Back when I worked the disaster trail, what I enjoyed most was watching resilience at play. In spite of neighborhood-flattening hurricanes, mass casualty losses, catastrophic flooding, and other mishaps, the strength of the human spirit was always quick to move in and carry people forward.

Resilience is not always obvious, at times proving quite subtle. And for everyfeather-and-earthone, it resounds in its own way. We each play our own special tune, even if we are not consciously aware of its unique melody.

Recently I’ve been struck by similarities between disaster survivors and emotional reactions to recent election fallout – yes, emotional trauma; fears and frustrations raised. It is all very much as people react to other disasters.

Yet I’m again gratified to see the many ways people move on, becoming better and stronger because of what they endured or continue to endure. For you see, trauma doesn’t just bring pain. It also brings growth. In fact, research finds post-traumatic growth more often among those who say they felt significantly affected than those who say the unfortunate incident was no big deal.

There’s no need to continue on as a traumatized nation. We are better than this, and we know it. Tapping back into connectedness is happening all around us, as we participate as both cheerful givers and receivers.

Does your resilience feel lost in translation? Here are some ways you might begin to relocate it:

  • Rekindle an old friendship with a phone call or letter
  • Start a new creative project, in whatever your medium of passion may be
  • Look for ways to “pay it forward,” even if it is something as simple as holding a door for a stranger, or putting a piece of litter in its proper place
  • Offer a smile, kind word or “hello” to someone who looks down in the dumpsjoy
  • Look into a new interest
  • Join a group focused on doing for and/or giving to others
  • Take a small step toward a simple self-improvement goal, such as taking a walk as a way to get  more exercise
  • Revisit your faith, no matter whether it stems from a higher power, joint spiritual connectedness, or awe and respect for the natural world
  • Help others deal with their fears in ways that are productive, rather than destructive: never underestimate the power of leading by example

The proof of the pudding? Examine your inner self after taking part in any of the above. Sense what is different, whether you experience it as emotional, physical, belief-oriented, or spiritual. That can be your beginning point.

And, a Merry Resilience to all!

Paris in Perspective

Around the world, indignation runs high as news reports and social mediaParis below outline the horror of yesterday’s attacks in Paris. Unfortunately, death and destruction are not the only casualties.

Anger can suit us well during times of physical threat. It can drive us to take action to protect self and others, a critical purpose for those rare circumstances when socialized behavior will not save the day. Once the incident has passed, anger loses its main purpose. We can let go of it.

Easier said than done. Many hold on to it, as the morals of basic humanity and wanting to keep from being caught off guard take center stage. This easily becomes destructive to self or others, turning us into secondary casualties of the original incident. It not only eats away at inner peace. Hard feelings and lashing out at others also impairs relationships, the social connectedness that lies at the core of personal resilience.

As we hear about more and more incidents such as the Paris attacks, how do we counteract this unwanted consequence?

There’s one simple thing we can all do to battle the terrorists’ war against the soul.

Continue reading

Helping Others Regain Their Footing

“I don’t have time to think about how I feel.” The disheveled woman gestures at tornado-ravaged debris that once had been her home. “Look at everything we’re contending with!” Her family members are aimlessly stumbling, poking at this or that. She spends the rest of her day dabbing away grime from salvaged silver.

How do we help those in such circumstances? This week our hearts go out to those learning about destruction and personal loss due to flooding in South Carolina. Where do their feelings leave them? How do we comfort, and help them move on?

When circumstances are overwhelming, it’s easy to get stuck. There is so much to attend to immediately following disaster. Especially if the damage is personally catastrophic:

  • The entire house is gone, and most of what it held.
  • What about the all that paperwork, the ID that tells the world who I am?
  • Where are my insurance papers?
  • What about my job?South Carolina Floods
  • How do I still get to work?
  • Is my place of employment still up and running?
  • My parents! Did they make it out okay?
  • Are they injured? Do they have their heart medications?
  • Where are they, anyway? Did they find a place to stay?
  • Where will my family and I sleep tonight?
  • How will we get food, or changes of clothing?
  • What do we do about money?
  • What about Suzie’s big test next week—her schoolbooks?
  • Is the school even open?

Continue reading

Little Ones and the Unthinkable

Incidents like yesterday’s shooting at Umpqua Community College put our resilience to the test. We will grieve because of it. We will each process the tragic incident in our own way. We continue to move on. Life goes on.

For children, it’s more complicated. Their personal resilience is not yet fully developed. children playingThey rely on their support system’s resilience to get them through disaster. For most, this means turning to parents and other significant adults for comfort and direction.

What should we say to a child when he or she asks about the horrific? Especially when it involves a shooting at a school, an environmental setting that is so prominent in their own lives. We cannot completely hide such incidents from them, given how they promote so much discussion and media coverage. What can we do to help keep a child from becoming an emotional casualty, after the fact? Continue reading

Once Again . . . The Charleston Shooting

It happened. Too many times, as President Obama and others point out. The weariness of it, perhaps even complacency forming over it, can lead to tuning out tragedies like the Charleston church shooting as redundant, something expectable of American society. Besides, there’s nothing to be gained by forcing ourselves to watch.

The impact on those affected will be there all the same, beyond the tragic deaths: trauma for the injured, for those who observed it or whose loved ones were killed or injured, and sometimes even for those who watch or hear about it from afar.

terror lurkingWe’ve heard it all before, the potential mental health effects of these experiences. Post-traumatic stress disorder gets the most press. But there are as many different potential reactions to trauma as there are people who experience it.

So what do we do about it? The authorities are always telling us to be prepared for disaster. How do you prepare for a mass casualty disaster? What do you do about this type of absurdity, the horrendous and unpredictable? Are we left only with looking for better ways to clean up whatever mess litters our psyches after the crisis passes? What can any one individual do in advance to fight the war on terrorism?

The answer: take back our vulnerability to terror. One person at a time.

Yes, tall words. Even taller-sounding expectations. Is it realistic to expect people to make themselves invulnerable to unpleasant emotions? Continue reading