Psychological trauma expected for survivors

Monday, September 5, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:27 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Hurricane Katrina has undoubtedly caused billions of dollars in property damage, but that says nothing of the psychological trauma many survivors will face.

While psychological stress is not an immediate priority, it will be something emergency response workers eventually encounter. Symptoms such as hyper-alertness, sleeplessness and nightmares may haunt survivors long after the hurricane.

Wayne Anderson, a member of MU’s International Center for Psychosocial Trauma, has witnessed these symptoms firsthand following disasters in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Iraq, as well as Palestinian areas of Israel. He predicts Katrina survivors will face the same problems.

“Anybody who was close to Katrina is probably going to have symptoms for a while,” Anderson said.

He also predicts 25 percent of survivors will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, a situation in which symptoms of stress persist for more than a month after the disaster.

Arshad Husain, director of the International Center for Psychosocial Trauma, is assembling a team of three to five people that will meet in Houston and begin to address the problems faced by children, a particularly vulnerable group. The goal is to give teachers and parents ideas and techniques for helping children cope with stress, displacement and separation from family members, Husain said.

“If parents are cautious and confident and give a message of safety to them, then the kids will feel much safer,” Husain said.

Although Husain witnessed the aftermath of the December tsunami in Indonesia, he said the situation in New Orleans is unique. “In the tsunami the death and destruction was enormous, but it came, and it destroyed, and then it went away. But that is not the case in New Orleans. the water is still there.”

Returning home, which research has shown to improve recovery because normal surroundings offer a sense of comfort and identity, will not be possible anytime soon.

“What we have found about hurricanes and tornadoes is that the loss of the photo albums and pictures is extremely hard on our sense of our identity,” Anderson said.

Stress in the aftermath of the hurricane can also affect people with family in the area or those who have simply followed developments in the news. Christine Civiletto, coordinator for programming, consultation and communication at the MU Counseling Center, said she’s seen no hurricane-related visitors yet. But she acknowledged the disaster can exacerbate existing stress for anyone.

Civiletto said those affected by the news should make an effort to take a break from the updates and share their feelings with others. Finding a productive way to help victims is another good coping strategy.

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