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How to cope with stress and grief after Hurricane Ian

People stand on a heavily damaged dock
Gerald Herbert
/
AP
People stand on the destroyed bridge to Pine Island as they view the damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Matlacha, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022. Storms like Ian are more likely because of climate change.

Experts say helping people who suffered losses during the storm meet basic needs like food and shelter reduces stress, while talking about emotions builds resiliency.

From round-the-clock news about its impending arrival to the devastating aftermath, Hurricane Ian has caused many Floridians extreme stress for nearly two weeks — and it's not over.

Therapists with the Florida Behavioral Health Association say they are concerned about the toll this could take on residents, both now and in the long-term.

Board chair Melissa Larkin-Skinner is also CEO of Centerstone of Florida, which operates behavioral health centers in the Sarasota-Manatee region and in Southwest Florida, some of the areas hit hardest by the storm.

She spoke with Health News Florida’s Stephanie Colombini about the mental health impacts of Hurricane Ian:

What kinds of emotions could people affected by the storm be feeling right now?

When it comes to stress response, really what we experience kind of runs the gamut. So depression, anxiety, feeling insecure, restless, anger, having nightmares, and then there are people who also feel numb.

So I would think of it as on a continuum. And even an individual's experience, they're going to kind of slide back and forth on that continuum as they experience the levels of stress and distress caused by something like Hurricane Ian.

Resource: Call/text the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 for support.

And on top of all that stress, I'd imagine there's a lot of grief.

There's so much loss. I would say that every single person affected is going to be experiencing grief in some way, whether it's a home and all their belongings, a loved one, a pet, etc.

I was talking to one of my team the other day, he lives in Fort Myers. And when he heard about Fort Myers Beach and the pier — it basically stripped down to just the pylons — he said they used to go there all the time. So I think one of the things, for instance, his family will be grieving is the fact that that bonding, that activity, will be gone, at least for a while.

And grief is not a linear process. It involves a lot of ups and downs, and a lot of different feelings. The best thing we can do is talk about it. And I know sometimes you feel like, “I don't want to talk about this anymore.” And that's OK. So take a break from talking about it. But identifying and acknowledging those feelings, and then talking about them, is one of the ways that we're able to cope and build resilience as human beings.

How can the community help right now?

Well, I know there are a lot of resources out there — FEMA, the county governments and municipalities. And I've heard so many stories, people I know, who are trying to gather supplies, who've loaned out generators, are buying people water, giving people a place to stay — these are the things that we can really do immediately to help.

And try to be understanding of each other, that's the other thing. We don't know individually what each of us is going through. So try to be understanding if people seem a little snippy or, or even on the flip side crying all the time, be understanding. It’s a painful time, but we can get through it.

What are your concerns about the long-term effect of this trauma? And how can we be proactive to address that?

The concern always with events like this is that the stress response, kind of the immediate response you have, will become chronic stress. And the problem with chronic stress or trauma is that physiologically, our bodies start to break down. And we start to have different types of issues like heart disease, increased risk of stroke, sleep disruption, or not sleeping at all, etc. So getting the help they need, talking to others, having a connection, it will decrease the likelihood that it will become chronic.

I know that FEMA is setting up disaster recovery centers, and one of the things that will be offered is mental health support, emotional support. So taking advantage of those things, if you can, is one way to try to get through this.

My expectation, just from being involved in similar things before, is that organizations will make available resources so that we can engage in some longer-term supports and therapy and trying to help the communities really recover. Because you also can't reach everyone immediately. There's just too many things going on and some people aren't ready yet either, they're just trying to deal with survival. And so the more longer-term supports are important as well.

Ways to get and give help

The national Disaster Distress Helpline is run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and offers 24/7 counseling and emotional support for people who survived Hurricane Ian and other weather events. The service is available in multiple languages. You can call or text 1-800-985-5990.

If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

First responders struggling after the storm can contact the First Responder Support Line, run by the Florida Department of Children and Families, at 407-823-1657.

FEMA has a Hurricane Ian webpage with instructions on how to apply for assistance and other resources.

Here are some ways residents can support members of the community affected by Hurricane Ian.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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