With losses that ranged from precious photographs and family keepsakes to vehicles and whole houses, lives were upended in so many ways last week when the remnants of Hurricane Ida leveled parts of this region with severe winds and submerged other parts with historic flooding.
The storm recognized no geographic boundaries, causing destruction in Chadds Ford and Coatesville, Upper Dublin and Bridgeport, Wilmington and Lambertville, Mullica Hill and Manayunk and Perkasie, among other communities. In Bucks County, it’s been a summer of tornadoes — three of them in a matter of weeks.
This week, steps away from advice and recovery assistance on the first day of a two-day Multi-Agency Resource Center in Norristown, a line of Montgomery County residents looked exhausted and still unable to believe what had happened. Heads were bowed. Reddened eyes again seemed on the verge of tears.
Some people shared harrowing accounts of swimming out of their homes past drifting belongings with their children — only to have one of the kids not speak for days afterward.
“He was shaking. That’s all he did for three days. So I’m sure he’s going to need some kind of therapy,” said Justin Stoekle, 40, a father from Bridgeport.
Life doesn’t just reset after the trauma of such catastrophic events, mental health experts say. It can fester, accumulate, and sometimes spiral out of control. Which begs the question: What should people do to cope with this kind of unforeseen turmoil in their lives?
Dr. Lily Brown is the director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. She says the thing people need to consider is that they will experience a spectrum of feelings, such as shock, numbness, outrage and sadness — all of which are appropriate.
“I think an important first step is to give yourself space to feel what you need to feel. Because often, in the aftermath of a tragedy, we put our heads down and sort of, you know, grit our teeth, and do whatever we can to survive. And that’s appropriate in the immediate aftermath of a stressor or a trauma like this,” Brown said.
People have to let their racing emotions catch up with them, however, or else they will do so at a more inconvenient time, she said.
It’s important to take care of those closest to it, but people experiencing trauma can often forget about themselves, Brown said. She recommended keeping a mental checklist: Did you get enough to eat? Did you get enough sleep?
Brown likened it to investing in yourself as you recover, because the path won’t be a walk in the park.
“We know that the vast majority of people who’ve been through a trauma will have some symptoms of what we call post-traumatic stress disorder. But for a lot of those people, those symptoms, fortunately, can subside on their own. And the way that you can help those symptoms work themselves out sooner rather than later is practicing actually talking about what you’ve been through with people who are safe to talk about it,” Brown said.
If not, the trauma may not heal, she said. Professional help is always an option if someone feels more comfortable talking to an expert, even if it’s just to touch base.
In these unprecedented times, most people could benefit from having a one-on-one with a mental health professional, she said.
Often, she said, when people ask when is the right time to seek help, they are usually trying to determine what levels of sadness or anxiety are normal versus problematic.
“The barometer I always use for that is: Are the emotions that you’re experiencing causing you impairment in your life? Are you not able to connect with your kids, or your partner, or your friends, because of the emotions that you’re feeling? Or are you calling out from your job or not able to submit job applications, because of what you’re feeling? Those indicators of poor functioning, those are really important signs that you should go and get an appointment with an expert to help you through the difficult times,” Brown said.
Stephen Soffer, a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, urged parents and guardians to give their kids the space and time they need to express themselves.
“Children, when given space and opportunity — when they feel comfortable enough to do so will get their thoughts and feelings out. And I think that’s really important for kids to do,” Soffer said.
Active listening and reassurance is key for caregivers to truly understand, especially when it comes to children’s concerns about their safety.
He also cautioned against minimizing the emotional impact that the loss of physical possessions can have on a kid even if everyone in a household is safe.
“That may not be the way your child sees it. And because as an adult, you’re, in essence, engaging in a level of sophisticated problem-solving. It might just be beyond what your child is able to do, so you may need to kind of take that down a couple of levels to help the child understand what may come a little bit more naturally to you,” Soffer said.
He advised that parents also pay close attention to the amount of news their child consumes following a natural disaster.
“Trying to strike a balance between keeping kids in the dark and giving them information, so they are aware, can be pretty delicate, but a really important one,” Soffer said, adding that those levels of access can vary from child to child.
Signs that parents and caregivers should be on the lookout for include kids crying, appearing angry, and acting out.
“What we would expect to happen in most circumstances is as distance from the event increases, that the degree of intensity, the child’s reaction starts to diminish,” Soffer said.
If things are a bit more out of the ordinary, such as a child being unable to talk for several days, Soffer said seeking professional help would be the best option.
Both Soffer and Brown pointed to these times as reasons why mental health needs to be taken more seriously than ever. In fact, Brown said, she has heard from many people that therapist appointments are harder to get.
Despite the waitlists, Brown said the field is getting better equipped to handle more people seeking mental health care.
“So I really encourage people to reach out if they feel like they could use some extra support right now,” she said.
WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.
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