According to results from a new poll the American Psychiatric Association commissioned on the effects of disasters on mental health, half of Americans are worried about a potential loss of income, 35 percent are worried about gun violence, and 29 percent are anxious about natural disasters.
As we face these fears, we often take practical steps: pinching pennies, signing flood insurance policies, and taking part in shelter-in-place drills. But, as a psychiatrist, I have to ask: What are we doing to safeguard our mental health in the case of a disaster? Is our mental health recovery a part of our disaster planning roadmap?
The answer, according to the poll, was less than encouraging. After a traumatic event, 60 percent of us said we’d rely on friends and family for support. In comparison, only 42 percent would practice self-care, 37 percent would speak openly about their feelings. Only 31 percent would seek help from a healthcare or mental health professional.
The truth is that while many people will show resilience in the face of difficult circumstances, others will face negative and sometimes life-threatening mental health effects: issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
It’s hard to say what our histories will portend in the face of disaster or how we will react. But, for your mental health, there are several things you can do to prepare ahead of time, such as understanding the signs to look out for post-disaster and what to do if you’re feeling off.
—If a disaster occurs, take a few simple steps to stay mentally well. If possible, maintain healthy eating, drinking water, sleep and exercise. These factors form the building blocks of mental health. Substance use generally doesn’t help, but relaxation techniques and social activities do.
—Stay informed, rely on credible sources and avoid speculation and rumors. Know your limits and be mindful of whether you’re doom scrolling or gluing yourself to the 24/7 TV news cycle. Seeing too much will heighten your level of distress.
—Maintain a connection to your friends and family and access local community resources for your health and mental health. It’s good to understand what might be available in advance and ask your community what plans they have for mental health in the event of a disaster.
—Understand that it’s normal to have good and bad days when recovering from a disaster.
While most people do recover, there are some red flags. Pay attention to your mood, sleep, energy level and appetite. If you’re feeling bad for more than a few weeks, or you’re having trouble functioning at work or home, or thinking about harming yourself or others, seek help from a healthcare professional.
Your friends and family can help you judge. If you hear things like: “You don’t seem yourself,” or “Wow, you’re cranky,” it may even be worth asking if they’ve noticed changes in your behavior if it’s been a while since you have felt normal .
With children and adolescents, be a role model and engage them. They need to know that you are there for them and can help. Share Mr. Rogers’ lesson to “look for the helpers” and see what those who keep us safe accomplish. Any routines you can stick to or establish will help, including family time, regular meals and sleep schedules.
Over the last two years, we have all encountered the mass disaster that is the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of us will endure other traumatic events in our lives. We can get through it, especially if we face them with the understanding that mental health is sure to be affected. The more we know, talk about and prepare, the better off we will be.
For more information, visit the American Psychiatric Association’s webpage on Coping After Disaster and Trauma.