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Disasters take toll on mental health

Posted: Saturday, March 04, 2000

Above and beyond the physical damage done by a disaster -- injuries, destroyed buildings, ruined utility lines -- there also is a significant psychological toll.

Because a disaster tests people in ways that cannot be accurately simulated, it is difficult to say with all certainty how well anyone will cope.

Resources

For more information on disaster preparedness, click on the following World Wide Web sites:

FEMA:

http://www.fema.gov

Alaska Division of Emergency Services:

http://www.

ak-prepared.com

Kenai Peninsula Borough:

http://www.

borough.kenai.

ak.us

Jim Spielman, interim director at the Central Peninsula Counseling Services, said most of the negative psychological consequences can be alleviated by preparation.

By being well-prepared and having physical needs taken care of, worry and anxiety are greatly diminished, especially when caring for children.

"In the case of a family, have you had a fire drill?" he asked. "Do the children know how to get out of the house?"

Spielman said in the aftermath of a disaster, mental health professionals will help people deal with the loss and uncertainty, both in groups and, when appropriate, individually.

"Mental health workers get training to deal with natural and man-made disasters," Spielman said.

Part of helping people is reminding them it is natural and expected for disaster victims to be afraid and unnerved, but talking about it and sharing those feelings with others in the same situation is helpful.

For parents comforting children, Spielman advised ac-knowledging emotions to let youngsters know what they are feeling is OK, but maintaining control at the same time.

"An adult (can) say to a child, 'everything's going to be OK, but Mommy's scared, too,'" said Spielman.

At the same time, however, Spielman said it is important for parents to remain as calm as possible, so as not to unnecessarily alarm children.

"Don't forget, that small child is depending on the parents for comfort," he reminded.

Spielman also said physical contact with children is very comforting and reminds them they are not alone or abandoned.

In the midst of an emergency, Spielman recommended doing deep breathing exercises, both to have something to focus on and to stay as relaxed as possible.



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