Addressing behavioral health needs amid a national disaster
By Judy Fitzgerald
Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities
After a natural disaster, many resources are needed to support recovery in the affected communities. These resources often include financial assistance, personnel, food, and supplies. While people are busy taking care of immediate needs for survival, behavioral health needs can be overlooked. The consequences of ignoring these concerns can be tragic.
The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) is available to support people in Southwest Georgia in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
Following the hurricane, DBHDD was awarded a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to support crisis counseling. This program, called the Georgia Recovery Project, is available in counties that have received a presidential disaster declaration for Individual Assistance Programs. That list includes Baker, Dougherty, Early, Lee, Miller, Terrell, and Worth counties (served by Aspire Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities), and Decatur, Grady, Mitchell, Seminole, and Thomas counties (served by Georgia Pines Community Service Board). More counties may be added.
The project provides crisis counselors who go door-to-door offering a “listening ear” for disaster survivors to talk about how they’ve been affected by the storm. Crisis counselors are also at disaster recovery centers, donation distribution centers and other community areas.
The crisis counselors from the Georgia Recovery Project can provide referrals to needed resources and emotional support. To get in touch with someone from the Georgia Recovery Project, call 229-977-4885.
Following a disaster event, it is not uncommon to feel upset, anxious, angry, depressed, confused, scared, or overwhelmed. After basic needs have been met, many people can resume their daily routines and activities, but stress and anxiety may persist. Here are tips to help cope with stress after a disaster:
Taking care of yourself and your loved ones
• Feelings of stress are better handled when talked about. Talk with family members and friends about your experiences and your feelings.
• Eat a healthy diet, avoid the use of drugs and alcohol and get regular exercise. Activities as simple as taking a walk, stretching, and deep breathing can help relieve stress.
• Stay informed. Your community’s emergency management team will provide information about local relief efforts.
• Limit your consumption of news, use social media carefully and follow trustworthy sources. The constant replay of news stories about a disaster or traumatic event can increase stress and anxiety and make some people relive the event over and over.
• Get enough “good” sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, only go to bed when you are ready to sleep, avoid using cell phones or laptops in bed and avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol at least one hour before going to bed. If you wake up and can’t fall back to sleep, try writing what’s on your mind in a journal or on a sheet of paper.
• Establish and maintain as much structure and routine as possible. This includes eating, sleeping, exercising, and fun.
• Plan family fun times each week, and spend weekly one-on-one time with each family member.
• Reach out to family, friends, and the community to seek the support you need and ask for what you want from the people who are likely to give it. Be hopeful. Many of us have experienced crises and survived. Families are resilient and include survivors who may need to be reminded of their strengths. Even with significant losses, people still have families and friends who can make a difference.
• Find Support. If the feelings of stress continue and begin affecting daily activities, reach out to a mental health or medical professional for additional help.
What to Look for – warning signs and risk factors for emotional distress
It is common to feel stress symptoms before or after a disaster. Most stress symptoms are temporary and will resolve on their own in a fairly short amount of time. However, for some, these symptoms may last for weeks or even months and may influence relationships with families and friends. Common warning signs of emotional distress include:
• Physical signs: Headaches, backaches, eating irregularities, sleep disturbances, frequent sickness, ulcers, or exhaustion.
• Emotional signs: Sadness, depression, anger or blame, anxiety, loss of spirit, or loss of humor.
• Behavioral signs: Irritability, backbiting, acting out, withdrawal, excessive drinking, or violence.
• Cognitive signs: Memory loss, lack of concentration, or inability to make decisions.
• Self-esteem: “I’m a failure,” “I blew it,” “Why can’t I…?”
Asking for Help
• If you or your loved ones continue to have feelings of anxiety, fear, or anger for more than two weeks without improvement, it’s best to seek professional help.
• Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor at the Disaster Distress Helpline.
• Find a local support group.
• For behavioral health services, to find a local crisis center, or if you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225.
• In Southwest Georgia, please also consider contacting Jennifer Dunn in DBHDD’s local field office at 229-977-4885.
• Visit http://georgiadisaster.info/ for more information about local efforts.