In the News: “Life After the Storm” and the Psychological Impacts of Hurricane Survivorship

In our In the News post this week, we are discussing the lasting psychological impacts people face after surviving a large natural disaster event, such as the string of recent hurricanes battering the United States and the Caribbean. Building from a recent New York Times article by Benedict Carey entitled Life After the Storm: Children Who Survived Katrina Offer Lessons, available here, this post discusses how lasting damage from natural disasters can be much more than physical and economic.


September 2017. Benedict begins his article by sharing the story of Craig Jones, now 22 years old, who was in fifth grade when Hurricane Katrina in 2005 devastated his neighborhood of Pigeon Town in New Orleans. After spending years on the move, living between hotel rooms, Jones returned to New Orleans in his late teens. He remembers that “home” was not the same place he had left, and his “homesickness” became troubling anxiety and seemingly random panic attacks.

Lacey Lawrence, 22, at work in New Orleans. She escaped the floods of Hurricane Katrina on an air mattress. Now she teaches children coping skills. Credit: Annie Flanagan for The New York Times

Another survivor, Lacey Lawrence, now 22, escaped the water of Hurricane Katrina on an air mattress. Lawrence recalls the experience of seeing police officers pushing away floating bodies with oars, missing and uncle who presumably drowned, and wondering where a young cousin disappeared to for several hours. Later, at a new school, Lawrence was ill-equipped to deal with her experience. “I was getting into fights; real fights, violent ones. That was something I never did before, ever. But you lose everything and you don’t know how to deal with it – no one prepares you for that” (Benedict 2017).

Studying the psychological impacts from previous hurricanes may offer hints of what may be to come for those who have survived Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and most recently, Maria. Mental health providers and social scientists are acutely aware of the unpredictable traumatic consequences which can emanate from surviving natural disasters. Yet the impacts of surviving a hurricane may be unique.

Benedict (2017) writes, “Unlike an earthquake or a fire, flooding from a storm like Katrina or Harvey leaves many houses and buildings still physically standing but uninhabitable, simultaneously familiar and strange, like a loved one sinking into dementia.”

In a series of publications from the Stress & Development Laboratory at the University of Washington, the research teams concluded that the prevalence of “serious emotional disturbance” (SED) in young adults after exposure to Hurricane Katrina remained significantly elevated several years after their experience of the storm (McLaughlin et al. 2010). The prevalence of SED among young adults who experienced Hurricane Katrina was considerably greater than the pre-hurricane prevalence. According to a 2010 study, approximately 8% of youths were estimated to have SED that is directly attributable to their experience of the hurricane. Further, the majority of adults who developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after Katrina, including delayed onset PTSD, did not recover within 18-27 months (McLaughlin et al. 2011).

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the majority of the literature focuses on the prevalence of and risk for the development of mental health problems following a storm or hurricane. For example, a study of the presence of PTSD symptoms after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 in a low-income area of Nicaragua found that the occurrence of PTSD in the areas with the least damage was 4.5%, while the most damaged areas was 9% (Davis, Tarcza, and Munson 2009). Variables such as low social support, prior exposure to traumas, and poor health status were found to be universally predictive of psychopathology symptoms (Davis, Tarcza, and Munson 2009).

A 2005 study by Fried, Domino, and Shadle looked at the use of mental health services after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and found that visits to psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and physicians for mental health reasons were higher in affected areas after the hurricane. However, inpatient admissions and the money spent on anti-anxiety medications decreased, indicating that there were likely problems with service delivery for those that did seek help (Davis, Tarcza, and Munson 2009).

Flooded homes are shown near Lake Houston on Aug. 30 after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area.
Photo from NPR: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Texas officials were “scrambling to coordinate mental health support” and the state’s psychology board issued temporary practice licenses for out-of-state therapists (Benedict 2017).

In a recent CNN article, Jesse Cougle, an associate professor of psychology at Florida State University, said that the people who stared and witnessed the destruction of Hurricane Irma will likely experience worse mental health problems than those who evacuated (Scutti 2017).

Chief of emergency mental health and traumatic stress services branch at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Capt. Maryann Robinson, stated that “when you go home and now you are actually faced with what has happened — the devastation that has occurred in your home — it really does re-traumatize the individual” (Scutti 2017).

Overall, anticipating the consequences for major hurricanes should encompass more than disaster preparedness schemes and evacuations routes. Multi-state collaborations

Katrina’s young survivors, now older and reflecting on their experiences, say that “overcoming the mental strain of displacement is like escaping the rising water itself – a matter of finding something to hold onto, one safe place or reliable person, each time you move” (Benedict 2017).


References Cited:

Davis T.E., Tarcza E.V., Munson M.S. (2009) The Psychological Impact of Hurricanes and Storms on Adults. In: Cherry K. (eds) Lifespan Perspectives on Natural Disasters. Springer, New York, NY. Pp. 97-112. (Available here: http://stressdevelopmentlab.org/publications)

McLaughlin, K. A., Berglund, P., Gruber, M. J., Kessler, R. C., Sampson, N. A., & Zaslavsky, A. M. (2011). Recovery from PTSD following Hurricane Katrina. Depression and anxiety, 28(6):439-446. (Available here: http://stressdevelopmentlab.org/publications)

McLaughlin, K. A., Fairbank, J. A., Gruber, M. J., Jones, R. T., Osofsky, J. D., Pfefferbaum, B., … & Kessler, R. C. (2010). Trends in serious emotional disturbance among youths exposed to Hurricane Katrina. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(10):990-1000. (Available here: http://stressdevelopmentlab.org/publications)

Carey, Benedict. (September 8, 2017) Life After the Storm: Children Who Survived Katrina Offer Lessons. The New York Times. Available here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/08/health/katrina-harvey-children.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fhealth&_r=0

Scutti, Susan. (September 20, 2017) Resilience, suffering and silver liniings after a disaster. CNN. Available here: http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/19/health/psychological-aftermath-hurricanes-harvey-irma/index.html


Further Reading:

Davis III, Thompson, Amie Grills-Taquechel, and Thomas Ollendick. (2010) The Psychological Impact From Hurricane Katrina: Effects of Displacement and Trauma Exposure on University Students. Behav Ther 41(3):340-349.

Domonoske, Camila. (September 26, 2017) Long After The Hurricanes Have Passes, Hard Work – And Hazards – Remain. NPR. Available here: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/09/26/552063244/long-after-the-hurricanes-have-passed-hard-work-and-hazards-remain

Fothergill, Alice, and Lori Peek (2015) Children of Katrina. Austin: University of Texas Press. Available here https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/fothergill-peek-children-of-katrina

McLaughlin, K.A., Fairbanks, J.A., Gruber, M., Jones, R.T., Pfefferbaum, B., Sampson, N., & Kessler, R.C. (2009). Serious emotional disturbance among youth exposed to Hurricane Katrina two years post-disaster. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 48:1069-1078. (Available here: http://stressdevelopmentlab.org/publications)

Shear, M. K., McLaughlin, K. A., Ghesquiere, A., Gruber, M. J., Sampson, N. A., & Kessler, R. C. (2011). Complicated grief associated with Hurricane Katrina. Depression and Anxiety, 28(8):648-657. (Available here: http://stressdevelopmentlab.org/publications)

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From the Archive: “On the Social Constructionist Approach to Traumatized Selves in Post-disaster Settings: State-Induced Violence in Nandigram, India”

This week we are highlighting an article from September 2015 (Vol. 39, Issue 3) entitled On the Social Constructionist Approach to Traumatized Selves in Post-disaster Settings: State-Induced Violence in Nandigram, India by Kumar Ravi Priya. The article discusses how a social-constructionist analysis into exploring how the continuity of self-hood is threatened or altered within socio-political and cultural contexts generates the experiences of suffering and healing. Through an ethnographic study conducted among the survivors of political violence in Nandigram, India, Dr. Priya aims to study the experiences of suffering and healing among the traumatized selves.

Priya states that the distressing experiences of survivors are understood in psychology and psychiatry principally as the behavioral symptoms resulting from an “incomplete emotional and cognitive processing of traumatic events.” With such an exclusive focus on the intra-psychic processes, trauma-related distress associated with the cultural interpretation of loss is largely ignored. Through an ethnographic study among the poor farmers of Nandigram, India, subjected to violence from the state government as it tried to forcibly acquire their land, Priya discusses the utility of the social constructionist paradigm in understanding the survivors’ experiences of suffering and healing within the cultural and sociopolitical context of violence.

Multidisciplinary approaches to subjective experiences of trauma state that a complete focus on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be ontologically irrelevant in cultures that do not value the notions of an individualistic self. Priya states that unlike the positivist tradition of research within mainstream psychology and psychiatry, the social-constructionist paradigm opens up the scope for psychological understanding of human experiences in their sociocultural and historical contexts. Alternative conceptualizations of the psychological impact of trauma must incorporate the cultural notions of self and how its coherence is threatened and re-negotiated amidst the traumatic events and their sociopolitical consequences.

For Priya, people can suffer from what they have lost of themselves in relation to the world of objects, events, and relationships. Such suffering occurs because an intactness of person, a coherence and integrity, comes not only from intactness of the body, but also from the wholeness of the web of relationships with self and others. The wholeness that a person experiences may be threatened if they not able to uphold the culturally valued aspects of self-definition. Yet it is the social world, even when mutilated in war or violent events, that holds the key to recovery or healing. Healing can be described as the process of restoring the experience of wholeness by reformulating aspects of person in a new way.

Priya uses themes of suffering and healing to highlight how the traumatized selves experience intense distress resulting from disruptions to a sense of wholeness. Yet this wholeness may also be reformulated through culturally valued beliefs. Themes include “experience of PTSD symptoms,” “betrayed self,” “overwhelmed by loss,” “biographical disruption,” “moral reaffirmation,” “sense of togetherness,” and “sense of security due to change in political environment.”

Aman, a 36-year-old man who worked as a daily-wage laborer, lost his teenage son in an attack on a political demonstration he was participating in. Aman’s account often reflected his distress due to sorrow and grief, as well as his inability to comfort his inconsolable wife. “At 12 midnight or 1 a.m., I am reminded of my [deceased] child, I start crying. I do not know when I fall asleep while crying.”

In the case of Aman, such an experience of loss of relationship may have an overpowering or overwhelming impact. This impact may render the past and immediate future difficult to be comprehended by the survivors. In Priya’s analysis, despite being overwhelmed, Aman also shared a sense of fulfilment over the martyrdom of his son. He also shared a new enabling meaning in life through culturally valued beliefs of taking care of one’s family.

For Priya, a social-constructionist analysis into exploring how trauma in post-disaster settings affects the continuity of selfhood goes beyond the traditional psychological PTSD diagnosis and generates the experiences of suffering and healing.

Books for Review: Vol 41, Issue 2

In our June 2017 issue, we received these two books for review at Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. These previews provide a snapshot of recent publications in medical anthropology, global health, and the history of medicine that we’re excited to discuss in our journal and with our followers on social media.


Living Faithfully in an Unjust World: Compassionate Care in Russia (2016)

Melissa L. Caldwell

In this book, Caldwell asks, “What does it mean to be a compassionate, caring person in Russia, which has become a country of stark income inequalities and political restrictions? How might ethics and practices of kindness constitute a mode of civic participation in which “doing good”—helping, caring for, and loving one another in a world marked by many problems and few easy solutions—is a necessary part of being an active citizen?”

Living Faithfully in an Unjust World explores how, following the retreat of the Russian state from social welfare services, Russians’ efforts to “do the right thing” for their communities have forged new modes of social justice and civic engagement. Through vivid ethnography based on twenty years of research within a thriving Moscow-based network of religious and secular charitable service providers, Caldwell examines how community members care for a broad range of Russia’s population, in Moscow and beyond, through programs that range from basic health services to human rights advocacy.

As the experiences of assistance workers, government officials, recipients, and supporters reveal, their work and beliefs are shaped by a practical philosophy of goodness and kindness. Despite the hardships these individuals witness on a regular basis, there is a pervasive sense of optimism that human kindness will prevail over poverty, injury, and injustice. Ultimately, what connects members of this diverse group is a shared belief that caring for others is not simply a practical matter or an idealistic vision but a project of faith and hope. Together care-seekers and care-givers destabilize and remake the meaning of “faith” and “faith-based” by putting into practice a vision of humanitarianism that transcends the boundaries between state and private, religious and secular.

For more information, visit the University of California Press website, available here.


PTSD and the Politics of Trauma in Israel: A Nation on the Couch (2017)

Keren Friedman-Peleg

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, has long been defined as a mental trauma that solely affects the individual. However, against the backdrop of contemporary Israel, what role do families, health experts, donors, and the national community at large play in interpreting and responding to this individualized trauma?

In PTSD and the Politics of Trauma in Israel, Friedman-Peleg sheds light on a new way of speaking about mental vulnerability and national belonging in contemporary Israel. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted at The Israel Center for Victims of Terror and War and The Israel Trauma Coalition between 2004 and 2009, Friedman-Peleg’s rich ethnographic study challenges the traditional and limited definitions of trauma. In doing so, she exposes how these clinical definitions have been transformed into new categories of identity, thereby raising new dynamics of power, as well as new forms of dialogue.

Chapters include:

  1. Birth of Agencies, Birth of an Interpretative Framework
  2. Trauma and Capital: Bearers of Knowledge, Keepers of Cashboxes
  3. Trauma and the Camera: Labeling Stress, Marketing the Fear
  4. They Shoot, Cry and Are Treated: The “Clinical Nucleus” of Trauma among IDF Soldiers
  5. Woman, Man and Disorder: Trauma in the Intimate Sphere of the Family
  6. Wandering PTSD: Ethnic Diversity and At-Risk Groups across the Country
  7. Taking Hold: Resilience Program in the Southern Town of Sderot
  8. Treading Cautiously around Sensitive Clinical and Political Domains

For more information, visit the University of Toronto Press website, available here.

Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 3: Contradictory Notions of Violence and Trauma in the Military

This is the second post in a series of article highlights from our new September 2016 issue, available here. In this installment, we explore Tine Molendijk, Eric-Hans Kramer, and Désirée Verweij’s article “Conflicting Notions on Violence and PTSD in the Military: Institutional and Personal Narratives of Combat-Related Illness.” To read the full article, click here.


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Molendijk, Kramer, and Verweij observe that contemporary quantitative research reports that members of the military tend to underuse mental health services, most notably for PTSD. The reports note that soldiers’ beliefs about these services may be hindering utilization: however, existing studies have not specifically identified the beliefs or cultural factors that lead to under-utilization. Through a qualitative analysis of the literature, the authors argue that existing mental health interventions carry contradictory statements about violence and PTSD that may be casting particular social and moral frames onto mental illness. These interventions thus situate PTSD within a pre-figured framework, rather than presenting PTSD and trauma in a manner that individualizes and “decontextualizes” its presentation amongst members of the military: whose personal narratives also offer a distinct perspective on the experience of PTSD. The study focuses on PTSD and its treatment namely amongst the US, UK, and Dutch contexts.

To begin, the authors state that the diagnostic category of PTSD per the DSMV (and its implementation in practice) itself imposes a particular cadence on the disorder, stipulating that it emerges in response to an isolated or otherwise triggering single event, rather than to a diffuse string of violent occurrences or social disruptions. The diagnosis also pathologizes the degree of transition between military and civilian life which, to some degree, must and does occur for all soldiers. “The current mainstream PTSD-concept, with its focus on trauma exposure and individual susceptibilities,” the authors argue, “frames PTSD as the response of an individual to an event,” rather than an individual to a series of events, or many people to a range of traumas.

Beyond the diagnostic category, the “infrastructure” surrounding PTSD and its treatment in the military also impacts the way the illness is conceived and given meaning. The authors “divided the PTSD-infrastructure into five categories: pre-enlistment screening, basic training programs, counseling during deployment and pre- and post-deployment psycho-education, post-deployment screening through a survey and a meeting, and therapy.” In the earliest stages, potential military recruits are screened for existing mental illness, while those who pass screening are then subjected to psychological conditioning in their training intended to bolster soldiers’ emotional and psychological fortitude against combat scenarios. Throughout and after deployment, soldiers are also counseled and receive mental health guidance intended to ease adjustments between the “battlemind” state and the “civilian” mindset. These numerous institutional mechanisms indicate that the military infrastructure situates PTSD as a dysfunctional “deviation” from the ‘functional’ “battlemind,” rather than a natural response to trauma. Thus PTSD is cast as the failure of an individual to integrate and compartmentalize a traumatic event within the mental frameworks for coping that they have already been given, even though the military has already anticipated trauma and attempted to prepare soldiers in the event of psychological disturbance.

From the personal perspective of soldiers, however, the experience of PTSD is presented in a different but equally conflicting light. The authors note that soldiers are expected to psychologically identify and process traumatic events, but are also instructed to resist considering the emotional impact of these events: thereby cognitively preventing them from narrating, contextualizing, and giving meaning to traumatic instances. Furthermore, as violence is a routine aspect of military labor, responses to it are not necessarily “exceptional.” Entire squads may experience the same trauma, although they may not all be later diagnosed with PTSD, or share the belief that mental health care is appropriate for overcoming psychological trauma. Indeed, in military culture, many soldiers may not perceive violence as a trigger, but– as noted earlier– an expected and normal part of daily work. Additionally, acts of military violence may not be perceived as traumatic if they are viewed as necessary, just, or appropriate. Amongst soldiers themselves, PTSD therefore carries conflicting and multiple meanings. The authors summarize that “soldiers have learned that exposure to violence can harm a soldier, and that PTSD-like symptoms are not unusual. However, at the same time, they have learned that violence and stress are inherent to a soldier’s job, and that ‘good soldiers’ should be able to deal with it.” Soldiers who struggle with trauma, therefore, are given resources to address it, but may suspect that it is normal and does not (or should not) require medical intervention. Thus both the institution and the nature of the profession generate conflicting messages about the etiology and treatment of PTSD amongst soldiers.

To some degree, the authors remark, the transition from active deployment (and its related trauma or exposure to violence) to civilian life contains unavoidable contradictions, as the psychological mindset needed for combat versus the mindset for civilian life differ greatly, and the adjustments between them may be difficult. However, the contradictions within the institutional narrative of PTSD– that it is dysfunctional, yet expected, and provided with interventions–may be preventing soldiers from understanding whether or not their response to violence requires treatment, or if seeking help is a stigmatized act. Ultimately, the authors conclude, “the [existing institutional] PTSD-narrative can give soldiers the feeling that important elements of their problems are not taken into account, or that they are translated into an individual problem. If so, soldiers then hear no narrative through which they can understand and articulate their experiences and potential inner struggles about the meaning of these experiences.” The authors’ findings therefore indicate that there are significant and potentially problematic conceptual rifts in the understanding of PTSD between soldiers and institutions, and amongst soldiers acting within the military infrastructure.