Experts: Mental health critical to disaster recovery

Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse gather for prayer before going to tornado damaged neighborhoods in the Dayton area to assist homeowners. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
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Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse gather for prayer before going to tornado damaged neighborhoods in the Dayton area to assist homeowners. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

As families and businesses repair the physical scars left by 15 tornadoes across the Miami Valley on Memorial Day, experts say it’s important to also pay attention to the psychological toll natural disasters take on individuals and the community.

“Everyone is going through post-traumatic stress,” said Springboro Police Chief Jeff Kruithoff, who has worked as a volunteer chaplain for first responders in the aftermath of disasters, including the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. What’s important is to not let that stress turn into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he said, which can interfere with everyday function.

RELATED: Tornadoes lead to record patient volumes at area ERs

ExploreVolunteers with Samaritan’s Purse worked in this Harrison Twp. neighborhood and others that were affected by tornado damage. The workers covered this house on Maumee Avenue. TY GREENLEES / STAFF Staff Writer

Early intervention is the key to stopping that, said Kruithoff, who also serves on the Dayton Daily News Community Advisory Board.

It’s common for many people to feel on edge, have anxiety or experience nightmares after a tornado — even those residents whose homes or businesses weren’t damaged, according to Wright State clinical psychologist and associate professor Jeremy Schumm.

“People start to have unhelpful ways of thinking,” he said, which can include guilt if they suffered less than their neighbors.

But the way the community has come together so far is a good sign for overall morale, he said.

“That’s a very good thing. That’s what we want to see,” he said, and that likely should reduce the number of people experiencing long-lasting post-traumatic symptoms.

Effects can show up later

Symptoms of anxiety should subside with time, Schumm said.

“A month from now, if you’re having a hard time getting back to your day-to-day life … you may need professional help at that point,” he said.

Feelings of guilt, helplessness or hopelessness and anxiety whenever severe weather is forecast are common, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which maintains a disaster distress helpline at 1-800-985-5990.

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Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse worked in this Harrison Twp. neighborhood and others that were affected by tornado damage. Andrew Jordan, right, measures a blue tarp for the roof of this house on Maumee Avenue. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse worked in this Harrison Twp. neighborhood and others that were affected by tornado damage. Andrew Jordan, right, measures a blue tarp for the roof of this house on Maumee Avenue. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
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Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse worked in this Harrison Twp. neighborhood and others that were affected by tornado damage. Andrew Jordan, right, measures a blue tarp for the roof of this house on Maumee Avenue. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

For some, the physical, emotional and mental effects of surviving a natural disaster can manifest days, weeks, months or even years later, according to Montgomery County’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Board Executive Director Helen Jones-Kelley.

“A disaster survivor can experience fear, anxiety, have trouble sleeping, irritability, feel helpless and overwhelmed, or even have nightmares related to the tornado or severe storm,” she said.

RELATED: Youth mental health: What can parents do?

First responders in particular can so be busy in the initial days after a disaster that they don’t have time to think about or process what’s happening, Schumm said. So their symptoms can manifest later, experts said, after the first wave of clean up activity and the swell of community support subsides.

“They deal day-to-day with trauma,” Schumm said. “Most are quite resilient and they’ve learned strategies to not let those traumas affect them long term. But to see my community destroyed or damaged or see my neighbor’s house destroyed, that can have a psychological impact on first responders.”

Volunteers also need to safeguard their mental health as they witness and absorb some of the pain of the people they help.

Robin Heck, of New Haven, Indiana, near Fort Wayne, is a volunteer with Samaritan’s Purse and said Wednesday she’s cried with homeowners in Dayton this week.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to be wrecked,’” she said. She took the opportunity when it was given to talk with one of the volunteer chaplains about her feelings.

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Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse worked in this Harrison Twp. neighborhood and others that were affected by tornado damage. The workers covered this house on Maumee Avenue. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse worked in this Harrison Twp. neighborhood and others that were affected by tornado damage. The workers covered this house on Maumee Avenue. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
caption arrowCaption
Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse worked in this Harrison Twp. neighborhood and others that were affected by tornado damage. The workers covered this house on Maumee Avenue. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

How to get help

Numerous organizations are working to make sure that residents affected by the storms have the resources they need to take care of their mental well-being, whether it’s access to counselors, spiritual leadership or just free ways to unwind as a family.

ADAMHS and the county opened a Family Assistance Center on Wednesday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1500 Shiloh Springs Road in Dayton.

The center offers access to one-on-one intervention services to assist with trauma and mental health needs for anyone affected by the tornadoes, with trained specialists able to make referrals.

RELATED: Dayton-area tornadoes: Federal disaster money not coming soon but process started

The center will operate six days a week for at least four weeks. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Rapid Response Team flew in volunteer chaplains to the Dayton region who accompany their Samaritan’s Purse teams into the community. The chaplains provide emotional and spiritual support to volunteers, staff and affected residents, chaplain coordinator Al New said.

While Samaritan’s Purse volunteers covered a damaged roof with tarp for James Gayman in Harrison Twp. on Wednesday, two chaplains talked to his family about their concerns and their support system.

“We go out into the community where Samaritan’s Purse is working and the chaplains come along side of the homeowners,” New said. “We give them emotional and spiritual care as they see all their personal belongings being carried out to the street … let them know there is hope, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse worked in this Harrison Twp. neighborhood and others that were affected by tornado damage. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse worked in this Harrison Twp. neighborhood and others that were affected by tornado damage. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
caption arrowCaption
Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse worked in this Harrison Twp. neighborhood and others that were affected by tornado damage. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

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New has travelled to nearly 100 disasters nationwide over the years. More often than not, he said victims talk about existing problems that have been exacerbated by the emergency.

“This is the storm that brought us here, but there were storms before in peoples’ lives. Now we’re talking about divorce or financial trouble or problems with their children or they want to commit suicide,” he said. “We’ve seen or heard it all.”

Just knowing that others are available to help and listen makes all the difference for many people, New said. Victims of disasters are always amazed when they hear how far the volunteers travelled.

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“‘You came all the way here to help us?’… It just lifts their spirit knowing that people do care,” he said.

If the volunteers encounter someone who is suffering from PTSD or needs professional help, New said the chaplains work with their local partner church to identify the proper local resource for referral.

Helping children heal

The Billy Graham chaplains also hand out materials to help kids process their feelings, including coloring and activity books.

Sometimes all young children can express is, “My house got broke,” said Toni New, Al New’s wife and a former counselor. But children often have more intense feelings and fears. Parents get so busy with the stress of finding shelter, food and supplies that sometimes kids feel more needy for attention, Toni New said.

Northridge Freewill Baptist Church wanted to make sure kids had an opportunity to be kids during the cleanup. They offered free activities and a family meal Monday through Wednesday evenings last week.

RELATED: Cox Media Group, Foodbank launch tornado relief effort

Children from the surrounding neighborhoods played kickball, drew with sidewalk chalk and just ran around in a safe environment away from the destruction.

“It’s got to be devastating knowing that your home was torn down,” said Josh Branscomb, assistant pastor at the church. “We’re just trying to help these kids, take some of the stress off of them, feed them a meal, let them run around, play some games and just enjoy being a kid.”


STEPS TO HELP RESTORE EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING FOLLOWING A NATURAL DISASTER

  • Give yourself time to adjust. Anticipate that this will be a difficult time in your life. Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced and exercise caution when making major life decisions.
  • Engage in healthy behaviors. Eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest. If you experience ongoing difficulties with sleep, you might find some relief through relaxation techniques. Avoid alcohol and drugs because they can suppress your feelings rather than help you manage and lessen your distress.
  • Find local support groups that often are available for those who have suffered from natural disasters. These can be especially helpful for people with limited personal support systems. Try to find groups led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals such as psychologists. Group discussion can help people realize that other individuals in the same circumstances often have similar reactions and emotions. Contact ADAMHS for information about local support groups at http://www.mcadamhs.org/ or 937-443-0416.
  • Establish or re-establish routines such as eating meals at regular times and following an exercise program. This can be especially important when the normal routines of daily life are disrupted. Even if you are in a shelter and unable to return home, establish routines that can bring comfort. Take some time off from the demands of daily life by pursuing hobbies or other enjoyable activities.
  • Help those you can. Helping others, even during your own time of distress, can give you a sense of control and can make you feel better about yourself.

Source: Montgomery County ADAMHS Board

HELPLINES:

National Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741.

  1. TIPS FOR HELPING CHILDREN COPE WITH DISASTER

Children are often the most vulnerable during and after a disaster, which can be emotionally confusing and frightening.

The good news is that children and youth are usually quite resilient. With the right support, they can thrive and recover.

  • Pay attention and be a good listener: Parents, teachers, and other caregivers can help children express their emotions through conversation, writing, drawing and singing. Most children want to talk about a trauma, so let them. Accept their feelings and tell them it's OK to feel sad, upset or stressed.
  • Allow them to ask questions: What are they hearing in school or seeing on TV? Try to watch news coverage with them and limit access so they have time away from reminders about the trauma. Don't let talking about the trauma take over the family or classroom discussion for long periods of time.
  • Encourage helping others: Children may cope better with a trauma or disaster by helping others. They can write caring letters to those who have been hurt or have lost their homes; they can send thank you notes to people who helped.
  • Model self-care, set routines, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, exercise and take deep breaths to handle stress. Adults can show children and youth how to take care of themselves.

Source: SAMHSA.hhs.gov

MIAMI VALLEY’S MENTAL HEALTH

Dayton Daily News Reporter Katie Wedell is part of the Path Forward project that digs into the most pressing issues facing the Miami Valley. She currently is investigating solutions to improve youth mental health in the region.

Look for upcoming stories on preventing teen suicides and solving the local mental health provider shortage.

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