The Mindset of Harvey: Understanding Mental Health and Natural Disasters

Flooded streets, lost pets, destroyed homes, abandoned cars, homes under water, crying babies…. These are all the images we have seen on the news, our neighborhoods, or even inside our own homes. These vulnerable images are being played over and over for the world to see. Houston is now being put under a microscope, being judged, looked at, and misunderstood. However, there is one part of this scenario that will not be televised. In fact, it will be brushed over briefly and not be prioritized, and that is the mental health of the survivors.

I am writing this blog on day 4 of Hurricane Harvey, and the only emotion I have been constantly hearing and witnessing is overwhelming feelings of numbness, anger, depression, and in some cases acceptance. Houston is in a state of shock, and we do not quite know how to feel. This disaster is still processing in our minds and we are in state of disbelief. Did this really just happen? Am I really homeless? Has everything that I have worked for just get washed away? So many questions with answers we are not ready to address. Being in sense of denial, and though we see others dealing with the same disaster, we are still toiling with our own feelings of isolation and loneliness. Millions of Houstonians are about to go through the stages of grief at the same time and in different ways.

So as you sit in your home looking around at all your belongings under water, or in a shelter looking at strangers that are dealing with similar circumstances, in a friend’s home taking shelter, in your yard picking up clothes from your front lawn, or next door helping a neighbor…. I need you to know that you are not alone. That means these thoughts and feelings you are holding in… do not ignore. This blog was not written to make you, the reader, feel better or “happy”, but rather an acknowledgement that I….we….Houston have some idea of what you are feeling and that you’re not alone.

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” However, that trauma is not only about the event but rather by one’s reactions to it and the symptoms. Any painful or overwhelming experience can cause trauma and that trauma (Hurricane Harvey) is only recognizable by its symptoms.

As Babbel (2010), stated the most immediate and typical reaction to a natural disaster is shock, which at first manifest as numbness or denial. Quickly or eventually shock can give way to an overemotional state that often includes high levels of anxiety, guilt, and even depression.

The American Psychological Association stated that the following are common symptoms of trauma:

• Feelings become intense and sometimes are unpredictable. Irritability, mood swings, anxiety, and depression are coming manifestations of this.
• Flashbacks: repeated and vivid memories of the event that lead to physical reactions such as rapid heartbeat or sweating
• Confusion or difficulty making decisions
• Sleep or eating issues
• Fear that the emotional event will be repeated
• A change in interpersonal relationships skills, such as an increase in conflict or a more withdrawn and avoidant personality
• Physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and chest pain

Do any of these symptoms sound familiar? Some survivors of Hurricane Harvey will seem at first perfectly fine, actually a little “too fine”, but these people can be beset with symptoms later on.

So what am I saying, why am I writing this blog? Well… my fellow Houstonians… my fellow Hurricane Harvey survivors… I am too a survivor. A person that has experienced this disaster, but also a person that wants to help. We, survivors of this horrible disaster, are recommended to seek professional guidance if we find ourselves unable to regain control of our lives.

In the upcoming weeks, I will attempt to update you on resources and coping techniques to help yourself and others.


Teens and Technology

My body becomes alert with anticipation as I reach for my iPhone. “Is it an Instagram like? A Facebook comment? A Snap? A text?” My mind wonders with excitement and hope as the home button reads my fingerprint. Light appears on the screen and I’m given access to a virtual reality. To my dissapointment it is only the notification for high pollen alert on my weather app.

Have you felt this way too? I realize I have been conditioned by my Smartphone! When it rings, I come running. There has been a lot of talk about the potential dangers of excessive electronic use for teens and children. A colleague of mine sent me a wonderful article written by Jean M. Twenge entitled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” I found The Atlantic article to be quite balanced in its view of electronics and the upcoming generation despite its scandalous title. The author ends the article with a caution stating “Significant effects on both mental health and sleep time appear after two or more hours a day on electronic devices. The average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices. Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits.”

Many parents know boundaries are necessary when giving children access to electronics. However, many are unsure of the best way to do it. I have listed out 6 principles to keep in mind when setting limits on electronics for your teen.

1. Use clear, concise communication. Long lectures do nothing for the parent-teen relationship and more times than not your teen has tuned you out, leaving you both feeling exacerbated.

2. Set up a family contract, see your teen as a contributing member to this contract and be open to their feedback.

3. Be consistent in implementing the agreed upon contract.

4. Model your own self-control in using electronics, this will be most impactful for your teen. Show them how you set limits for yourself, that will mean more to them than what you say.

5. If you have monitoring systems on their devices, this should be communicated to your teen from day one. Let them know from the beginning what your expectations are and how you will be monitoring them. Emphasize that the monitoring system is for their safety, not for a lack of trust in them. Being transparent and creating open lines of communication is essential during the teenage years.

6. Let them know you love them for who they are, no matter what.

Try being mindful of these six principles when setting limits with your teen. Remind yourself that you are only human, and raising a teenager is hard. If you would like more assistance in creating open communication with your teen, try family counseling at Heritage Behavioral Health Consultants.