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After The Storm, Irma Takes Emotional Toll

Sep 16, 2017

Hurricane Irma has passed, and some Floridians impacted by the storm have to rebuild – not only their homes, but their lives.

When a natural disaster as unpredictable as Irma hits, the main concern is getting people to a safe place and making sure they have enough resources to manage through the storm. However, once the immediate danger has passed, the next step is to recover and move forward.

“This is a terrible, devastating event – but there are things that we can do,” said Dr. Eina Fishman, the Chief Medical Officer at UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Florida. She suggests utilizing mental health resources, such as hotlines, taking care of your physical health, and volunteering in disaster relief efforts.

After experiencing a trauma, it is usual to try and go about a regular routine. But how do you deal with the hovering anxiety? What do you do about your damaged house? How do you handle your kids, who were wrenched out of their routines?

According to Dr. Fishman, these questions are completely natural responses when dealing with an event as distressing as Irma.

“I want to encourage people not to jump to the conclusion that they’re sick or that there’s something wrong with them because a lot of the feelings that we respond to are normal reactions to this kind of trauma,” she said.

The problem arises when these feelings persist for a longer period of time, typically 30 days following the event. That may indicate a more serious psychological issue, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Dr. Fishman advises people to give themselves time to adjust; these feelings usually only last for a week or two following the incident due to the uncertainty with how to proceed.

“The greatest piece of anxiety and being overwhelmed is not knowing what to do,” she said. “When people start to feel that they have control over their life and their decisions, a lot of the anxiety and a lot of those feelings of being overwhelmed go away.”

Many disaster relief efforts have compiled resources that address these mental health concerns, including hotlines and shelters.

Dr. Fishman encourages people to volunteer at places they have a connection to, such as a house of worship or in their neighborhood.

“We have a lot of support in our organization, as well as in the community; churches and foodbanks and a lot of organizations have stepped up to the plate,” said Dr. Fishman.

Regarding how parents can walk their children through this event, she suggests they create a new routine. This creates structure for the kids, allowing them to stay grounded and move past the unpredictability of the storm.

“I think what’s very important is that (families) talk together about how they’re going to manage their day, because there is a lot of uncertainty and lack of structure,” said Dr. Fishman. “If you can create an infrastructure for the day…you’re recreating that feeling of stability and control.”

Many health insurance providers have set up counseling hotlines that can directly connect callers who are dealing with Irma-related anxiety to clinicians who can help them take their next steps (see resource list below).

The Optum help line, 866-342-6892, is a crisis hotline provided by UnitedHealthcare. It’s a toll-free number that is open 24/7 to anyone, including non-members, and will connect someone in distress directly to a licensed clinician.

Health Care Providers Hotlines

UnitedHealthcare/Optum – 866-342-6892

Anthem – Live Health Online

Aetna – 1-888-238-6232

Humana – 866-440-6556

Florida Blue -- 800-843-6514

Cigna – 866-912-1687

Other Resources

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline – 1-800-950-6264

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline – 1-800-985-5990 

Cenpatico – 1-877-941-8079