Mental Health, Post-Disaster

Dec 21, 2016

Beyond the tangible needs - like housing, and infrastructure - there’s a mental health component to disaster recovery. Traumatic experiences carry an emotional and psychological cost, and many victims continue to struggle long after their homes have been rebuilt.

But as WWNO’s Della Hasselle reports, local charities are available - providing counseling and assistance to help people rebuild their lives, and emerge from trauma stronger.

For James Farris, late December is usually spent getting ready for his annual Christmas Eve dinner.

“Oh, setting up for Christmas, we usually have a big family gathering here frying turkeys, and grandkids. I have six grandkids.”

But not this year. His home is among thousands still ruined from when water rose to rooftops during the August flood in south Louisiana. So Farris is busy hosting company of a different kind.

These days, it’s all contractors and crisis counselors. Among them is Ike DeLee of the counseling program The Louisiana Spirit.

"We’re standing what looks to be the living room. You can’t hardly tell because there’s nothing in here. There’s no sheetrock on the walls. It’s down to the bare studs," DeLee observed on a recent visit.

Farris doesn’t complain much. He says he feels lucky to be alive. That’s why he wrote the words “Praise God” on the front window of his gutted house. But recently, he had to come to terms with something. He needed someone to talk to. To tell stories like these, about the flood.

“I’ve never been through nothing like that before," Farris says. "My neighbors was blowing their horns and beating on the doors and I was trying to get up and get the doors open, and I had wood floors, and it was floating up, so I’m stomping down wood floors, trying to get a door open.”

Nicole Coarsey has heard a lot of these stories. She works as the director of The Louisiana Spirit, a FEMA program run through the state health department. Since August, her team has counseled more than 50,000 people who have been affected by the flood, and the number keeps growing. Coarsey says it’s because the holidays can be especially hard for disaster victims.

"Now here comes Christmas. And now they’re probably thinking, well I didn’t make Thanksgiving, I’m gonna be back in my house and have my grandkids over. And here it is, and in this home they won’t be able to have that traditional Christmas dinner. And it can be stressful and overwhelming and depressing not having that family unity like they used to. They may have to have it in an aunts house, or a restaurant or something like that, And they feel they’re losing that tradition.”

Paula Davis agrees. She’s the clinical director of Catholic Charities, which also offers counseling after disasters. On average, Davis says about one-third of all survivors will suffer some type of post-disaster disorder.

“So things that you might see following something like the floods are sleep disorders. You might see depression, you may see anxiety, you may see social isolation," Davis said.

Mental health issues can also impede the recovery process by making it more difficult to keep up with filing deadlines for insurance or for FEMA paperwork. Catholic Charities says, too, that people who are depressed are less likely to do the physical work needed to rebuild their homes and communities.

Edith Furlough of Louisiana Spirit says the most important thing that she can do is bring hope to those affected. She knows firsthand what flood victims are going through, because her house was damaged after Hurricane Isaac.

“Of course we bring them hope. And we also give them pamphlets and stuff to read. And stuff to read. To encourage them that -- it wasn’t just you. It was others. But to let them know that…we care.”

Her message is getting through. Although this holiday season has been hard for him, James Farris says he would feel lost without counselors helping him out.

“Miss Edith, she helped me out just talking to her, you know. She understood where I was coming from, you know.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with post-traumatic stress after the flood, help is available. To learn more about mental health support available in your community, visit The Louisiana Department of Health, or Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge.

This report has been brought to you by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, and made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.