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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“‘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.
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.”