Friday, October 9, 2020

Hurricane season: Emotional and psychological disaster preparedness

(Note: This blog post was originally published in July 2019 as Hurricane Barry approached Louisiana. With 2020’s especially active hurricane season, we are sharing it again with updated resources and information on COVID-19 and flu season.)

By DR. JAMES E. HUSSEY | Medical Director, LDH Office of Behavioral Health

Tropical weather in the Gulf this week has us on our toes, ready to spring into action if things get nasty. While here in Louisiana we’re always ready for the possibility of high winds and torrential rains, we usually look to the practical side of things: Did we stock up on food and water? Is the generator ready to go?

Those things are undeniably important, but it’s also a good idea to be prepared mentally and emotionally. Natural events such as a storm can unfold in minutes to hours, yet the feelings and emotions they evoke can linger for weeks, months and even years after.

Psychological preparedness can help you think logically and wisely during and after disasters, helping to keep you physically safe while also weathering the emotional storm.

Disaster-related stress can affect anyone, but some people may be more vulnerable than others. They may include those with disabilities, existing mental health issues, children, the elderly and those who have been previously impacted by floods, hurricanes and other disasters.

Recognizing disaster-related stress

FEMA has some online resources aimed at coping with disaster. First, it is important to be able to recognize signs and symptoms of disaster-related stress, and to seek counseling or assistance. According to FEMA, some symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty communicating thoughts
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty maintaining balance in their lives
  • Low threshold of frustration
  • Increased use of drugs/alcohol
  • Limited attention span
  • Poor work performance
  • Headaches/stomach problems
  • Tunnel vision/muffled hearing
  • Colds or flu-like symptoms
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Reluctance to leave home
  • Depression, sadness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Mood swings and easy bouts of crying
  • Overwhelming guilt and self-doubt

It’s OK to seek help

If disaster-related stress starts wearing you down, it’s perfectly normal and OK to ask for help. Here are some helpful resources:

  • The Keep Calm hotline, 1-866-310-7977, will connect you to trained, compassionate counselors who can offer support and who can direct you to mental health and substance abuse counseling services.
  • The Behavioral Health Recovery Outreach Line, 1-833-333-1132, offers 24/7/365 support for healthcare professionals and recovery support for those with substance use, mental health, mental illness or co-occurring disorders. Qualified support providers will connect you to trained specialists and clinicians in multiple languages.
  • The Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990, is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for those in emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.
  • For non-emergencies, check the Office of Behavioral Health directory for local community behavioral health services in Louisiana.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a Disaster Kit for recovery workers, which includes wallet cards, guides for parents, caregivers, teachers and others. There is also a SAMHSA Disaster App.

Contact your primary care doctor and/or your insurance plan for referrals to behavioral health specialists.

Physical and emotional health

Hurricane season arrives amid the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the oncoming flu season. It is just as critical to take care of your physical health as it is your emotional health. 

  • Flu and COVID-19 are respiratory diseases that share the same preventive measures: 
  • Wear a cloth mask or face covering, 
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds,
  • Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are unavailable, 
  • Cover coughs and sneezes, 
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unclean hands,
  • Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces regularly,
  • Don’t go out unless necessary,
  • Keep a distance of at least 6 feet between yourself and others, and
  • Stay home if you are sick.

This year, it is more important than ever that you get your flu shot. An individual whose body is already weakened by the flu is likely to be more susceptible to COVID-19. The flu shot lessens the burden of flu illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths, so vaccinating as many people as possible decreases the likelihood of our healthcare system being overwhelmed by both flu and COVID patients.

Flu shots are available at your local clinic, your healthcare provider, most pharmacies or at one of the Department of Health’s upcoming vaccination clinics. 

If you believe you have been exposed to COVID-19, isolate yourself from other people and call your healthcare provider. 

The Louisiana Department of Health’s Fight the Flu website and COVID-19 webpage offer a wealth of guidance, resources and more information.

FEMA also recommends that you take steps to promote your own physical and emotional health and healing by healthy eating, rest, exercise, relaxation and perhaps even meditation. It is important to maintain a normal family routine as much as possible and to lean on your existing support groups of family, friends and religious institutions.

Be prepared

For many people, having a disaster supply kit stocked and a family disaster plan ready is a great comfort. When the storm comes, you’ll be ready to go. For more information, click here.

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