According to a Gallup poll, the clinical diagnosis of depression in zip codes heavily affected by Sandy increased by 25% in the weeks following the storm. This coming at a time when Health and Human Service organizations that remained operational were stretched thin and left to deal with the overwhelming number of storm-related needs. What the poll didn’t measure were the number of individuals who were on medications for a pre-existing mental illness that stopped taking them due to facilities being taken off line, medication being lost in the storm, or not being able to contact their case worker due to lack of power, public transportation outages, and an absence of reliable information.
In addition to the challenges posed by a lack of medications and reliable information, many substance abuse clinics worried/worry about the rise in abuse and relapses as a result of Sandy-related stresses. But the worry extends beyond substance and drug abuse, PTSD in adults and children, acute stress-related behaviors, flashbacks, hoarding, and a host of other personal mental issues continue to plague the survivors in their ability to recover.
While organizations like the Staten Island Mental Health Society, Long Island Mental Health Services, and other nonprofit human service organizations have setup support groups, free crisis counseling, and other Sandy-related programming, the scale of the ongoing trauma point to an area needing urgent attention, understanding, and additional resources to adequately ensure support is there for those who need it.
The greatest challenge facing those who preach preparedness is that there is no way for a person to understand how they will react in the face of an event until they're faced with an event. Training can help, but for the average person, training isn't realistic. Up to this point, check lists like the one put out by the American Psychological Association, the Disaster Distress Hotline, self care, and having a strong network of friends and family have been the promoted best practices to help individuals prepare for post-event psychological trauma. To enhance our knowledge of the short and long term psychological affects natural disasters have on people, the Feinstein Institute was recently awarded a $600,000 grant from the CDC. Over the next 2 years, a study will be conducted aimed at deepening our understanding of how to better prepare people to cope with the impacts of natural weather events that are forecast to become more common.
As a stronger emphasis is placed on whole of community response, stronger advocacy will be needed to ensure that human resilience is made a key value and takeaway as a result of Superstorm Sandy. While building codes can uniformly address needed changes to how we protect ourselves, and flood maps will tell us how high to build, resilience in people is a far more dynamic and individualistic challenge, one that will require ongoing thought and resource to ensure that the communities we're working to make stronger can weather the next storm.