Clinical psychologist and Provost Mick Smyer discusses the aftermath of disasters.
By Julie Dreese
Q: What was your experience of Hurricane Katrina?
When Hurricane Katrina hit, I was living in Boston, so I experienced the storm through the media. But I knew the landscapes and geography. I grew up by Lake Pontchartrain, so when the levees broke I knew what would happen. As a psychologist who specializes in aging, I also knew that there would be significant challenges for older adults in the wake of the devastation.
Q: What do psychologists who are called to help in disasters often face?
Psychologists face two challenges: one immediate and one longer-term. The first task is crisis intervention and response. The longer-term task is helping rebuild individual and societal resilience. This sometimes requires re-establishing clinical settings, methods of treatment, and social and professional networks that can provide ongoing support.
Q: What are some of the mental health consequences victims can experience?
Survivors encounter disasters with a history of coping skills and a set of social, emotional and psychological resources. That history and those resources help shape their response to the disaster. Those responses may range from transitory anxiety and depression to serious mental illnesses such as a bi-polar episode, psychotic reactions or thought disorders.
Q: What did we learn from Hurricane Katrina in terms of mental impact?
One of the lessons of Katrina is that the typical pattern of impact and recovery may not hold in a disaster with widespread and continuing impact. Population rates of mental illness tend to peak six months or so after a disaster and then slowly return to pre-disaster levels. In the case of Katrina, the rates of mental illness had not decreased two years after the storm. Direct care workers said that was because the disaster was still ongoing. I expect we may see a similar pattern in some of the regions hardest hit by Sandy.
Q: How do we as a nation cope with large-scale disasters?
We are relatively good at immediate response to disasters. A bigger challenge is having the persistence to support longer-term recovery of communities. Seven years after Katrina, Bucknellians are still rebuilding homes in the New Orleans region, because there are still hundreds of families on waiting lists of the St. Bernard Project (our collaborating organization) and others like it. There is still a need for help in recovering.
You can join Bucknell in helping hurricane victims by going to www.bucknell.edu/sandyrelief.