Kingwood resident Daryl Palmer can still remember the face of a roughly 90-year-old woman who he helped transport from a flooded Kingwood nursing home to a nearby landing site for rescue helicopters during Hurricane Harvey. Although she had a fractured pelvis, Palmer said the unknown woman was smiling as she was transported from floodwaters.
“She’s flashing smiles and saying, ‘Thank you so much for helping me,’ and every time they moved her, she was just [in so much pain],” Palmer said. “That was one of the hardest moments of that whole storm. … That’s the image that sticks in my mind.”
Mental health care experts said experiencing a natural disaster, such as Harvey, can create lasting effects on individuals’ psyche for months or even years after. Now, local and state agencies are surveying residents to gauge mental health conditions caused by the storm as well as forming collaborations to ensure there are proper mental health resources in place to handle future natural disasters.
Licensed Professional Counselor Marty Lerman, who is the founder of Kingwood organization Allied Mental Health, said people who have gone through natural disasters in which they may have lost their homes and belongings may feel anxious and distressed when subsequent rain events have occurred.
These feelings can lead to symptoms such as headaches, nail biting, panic attacks, eating and sleeping disorders, or even alcohol abuse, Lerman said. His organization hosted a “Rainxiety” event in May following heavy rains that hit parts of Kingwood to help residents deal with the distress.
“When these kinds of things happen, probably about 90% of the population that needs help does not get it, and about 10% does get it,” he said.
Assessing mental health post-Harvey
The Hurricane Harvey Registry, a Houston-area organization, is studying the long-term impact of Harvey on housing, physical health and mental health to better help agencies provide disaster assistance. The organization released its initial report in February, and officials said more comprehensive reports will be available in the future.
The report showed 59% of respondents reported they often or sometimes think about Harvey when they did not mean to, while 32% of respondents said they were aware they still had a lot of feelings about it, but they did not deal with them.
Joally Canales, community outreach coordinator for the Hurricane Harvey Registry, said mental recovery from disasters is sometimes described as happening in waves.
“You have, kind of, the honeymoon stage after the disaster where everyone is helping each other and there’s hope,” Canales said. “Then a few months pass, and you feel like people have forgotten about you.”
The registry’s data includes feedback from 9,798 people who registered as of Jan. 1. However, as of early April, 637 Kingwood and Lake Houston-area residents were included among the more than 16,500 registrants, she said.
The organization is also compiling neighborhood-specific data to provide a more in-depth look at Harvey’s psychological and physical effect on communities in the Greater Houston area. Canales said she hopes the data will be used by lawmakers, local officials and health care professionals to address the needs of the region.
Meanwhile, the Houston Harris County Disaster Behavioral Health Initiative—a partnership led by the Network of Behavioral Health Providers with the city of Houston, Harris County and the state of Texas—was launched by the NBHP in June, said Sue Levin, co-chair of the NBHP’s initiative.
Levin said the project, which is funded by the Houston Endowment, forms long-term coordination efforts between local and state entities to better address mental health conditions that could arise from future disasters.
“[We] will be more likely and able to access each others’ resources and not duplicate efforts and step on each others’ toes,” she said.
Strategies, resources to help
Mental health experts said there are several strategies people can use to fight the anxious feelings surrounding these rain events, including doing emergency preparations.
“Anticipating what you need to do to take care of yourself and your family and your belongings … that puts you into a mindset of action,” Lerman said.
Additionally, Mental Health America of Greater Houston, an education and advocacy nonprofit, provides free mental health workshops to residents, schools, first responders, disaster-case managers and others involved in Harvey-recovery efforts.
MHA Program Specialist Tilicia Johnson said workshop requests have increased in the two years since the storm. To help offer these services, the MHA has received more than $1 million from local foundations and donations.
The MHA’s self-care workshop helps people identify why they may be feeling stress or fatigue, and gives recommendations on how people can cope and build resiliency after the storm. Johnson said some techniques include practicing deep breathing.
“We also encourage residents to do things they enjoy doing, so if that’s taking a walk with a pet or talking with a friend ... to reset their mood and emotional well-being,” Johnson said.
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