Mental health issues still bother Hurricane Harvey survivors

Tropical storm Harvey had left Houston high and dry, leaving over 80 people dead and thousands other homeless. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, over 9,000 homes were destroyed and 185,000 were damaged by the hurricane that lashed the state in August 2017. The catastrophe inflicted a loss of around $125 billion, affecting Houston metropolitan area the most.

While the storm is over, many Houstonians are still struggling with one of its obvious aftermaths – psychological trauma. Experts say that the emotional distress following such a devastating event may affect mental health in many forms, including anxiety, depression, grief and even fear of storms. This may lead to an unstable state of mind, progressing to severity of symptoms over a year or longer. The scenario is evident in Texas where new patients are attending free private and government-funded counseling programs even months after the storm.

After the hurricane, more than 160 public school districts and 30 charter schools were shut in the Houston metropolitan area. Hundreds of families were shifted to higher ground. While some sought refuse in cities like Dallas and San Antonio, others found their way to shelters. Thousands of children were adjusted on the flights, ferried through buses for hours to new schools from makeshift housing.

Anticipating the possible challenges, Texas officials coordinated with mental health experts to counsel the victims of the natural calamity. Fortunately, many institutions rushed to help after media started to report increased cases of psychiatric problems in the cyclone-hit areas. Schools, in particular, came up with additional mental health counselors to support the students in trauma.

For the first time, students found their families in such a helpless situation. Counselors attending to the kids found that stress and anxiety experienced by parents were afflicting their kids too. The small coastal town of Port Aransas, which witnessed a catastrophic destruction, has been reporting a significant increase in people with mental health problems over the last month. “It’s gone from kind of the immediate stress and shock to more just kind of a chronic stress and long-haul type of thing… A lot of my work is helping people prioritize and focus on what they can control versus what they can’t,” said psychologist Andrew Reichert.

It is not the first time that a natural calamity has left people crippled, both physically and mentally. According to studies, 30-50 percent of the Katrina survivors reported post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric disorder developed following a shocking, scary or dangerous event. A study by Columbia University suggested 36 percent of child victims of Katrina exhibited serious emotional disturbances. Similarly, Hurricane Sandy was responsible for causing PTSD in 20 percent, depression in 33 percent, and anxiety in 46 percent residents.

Generally, these mental health conditions are an outcome of a wide range of social problems. Research has reported more than 50 percent decrease in population one year after Katrina as well as low birth weight in Katrina-affected communities in newborns. In addition, Sandy-affected areas reported higher incidence of substance abuse, particularly in younger population.

Road to recovery

While the physical wounds due to natural calamities like hurricanes and earthquakes are visible and treatable, their effect on mental health appears only with progression of time. Therefore, it is important to preempt and respond proactively to minimize the damage to mental health of those suffering from disasters. If not addressed properly, these psychiatric problems in the vulnerable population may impair the community’s rebuilding efforts, thereby reinforcing the vicious cycle.

The 24/7 Mental Health Helpline supports people struggling with psychiatric conditions through inpatient and outpatient mental health helpline. Call at our 24/7 helpline number (855) 653-8178 or chat online with one of the representatives at our inpatient/outpatient mental health helpline.