Thu, Sep 08, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Crisis may leave psychological scars across US

SURVIVORS Depression. Anxiety. Nightmares. These are some of the symptoms being experienced by people in the US, and not only those in New Orleans


Seven-year-old Nhang Nnuyen waits for her father to get her clothes out of their home, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in East Biloxi, Mississippi.


In Houston, a stressed-out mother sits on a cot in the middle of the Astrodome and says she has probably slept just four hours in the past three days. In New Orleans, a policeman, apparently distraught over his inability to rescue people, sticks a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. And in California, an 11-year-old boy turns to his father and asks if hurricanes can happen there.

Hurricane Katrina has wrenched the lives of its survivors, rescue workers and even a transfixed nation that watched the catastrophe unfold. Many survivors, especially, will suffer significant psychological trauma, some experts say. But they also stress that people are remarkably resilient, and that most who survived the storm and floodwaters won't be permanently impaired.

"I would expect to see most people recover and be fine," said psychologist Andrew Baum of the University of Pittsburgh, who studies reactions to disasters. "People do better than we expect them to."

That would be a welcome change for Selika Thomas, whose home is currently the Astrodome.

"I'm depressed, I'm stressed out," said the 30-year-old mother of two who worked as a hotel chef in New Orleans. "It all happened so fast. We see this every day, homeless people living in the streets, but I didn't expect it to happen to our whole city."

Even after they reach safety physically, the survivors of Katrina have plenty of psychological pressures to cope with. They may not know the fate of family members and friends. They may not know if they have houses to return to. The social fabric of their everyday lives, things as mundane as the stores they shopped at, has been disrupted. They have little control over their lives. And they've seen horrible things.

That will lead to "ordinary reactions to extraordinary events," as Gerard Jacobs, director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute at the University of South Dakota, puts it.

Anxiety. Anger. Depression. Trouble concentrating and remembering things. Nightmares. Headaches. Withdrawal from other people and activities. Some survivors, and it's not clear how many, could develop post-traumatic stress disorder, a long-term reaction that includes flashbacks and intrusive thoughts.

Jacobs, who expects little chronic PTSD to develop, said the other symptoms typically last for six to eight weeks after a catastrophic event ends. But he notes that it's hard to tell when an event like Katrina really ends, with the long-term disruption in people's lives.

"I think in each individual, it's going to be a question of when they see the event as being over and when they see themselves as beginning the recovery process and moving forward," Jacobs said.

Barry Hong, a psychiatry professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who has studied flood survivors, said he'd guess that maybe half the survivors might need counseling or other formal psychological treatment, while the other half may do fine on their own with help from family and friends.

It will be crucial for survivors to regain a sense of normalcy and control over their lives by getting jobs and putting their kids in school, and to reconnect with their families and friends, he said.

Jacobs said that in his study of survivors of the Indonesian tsunami, "it strikes me how strong the people are and how they're able to look forward. That's more the norm than the exception ... I think you'll find that in the South, too."

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