For many survivors of Hurricane Ike, which cut a destructive path across eight states, life will never be the same again. Aerial cameras have captured images of debris-strewn streets, crumbled homes, and communities ravaged by flood waters. Yet not all the injuries from the giant storm are physical. Disasters commonly cause mental health distress for those who experience them, even if only indirectly.

Natural disasters can endanger mental and emotional health, prompting immediate feelings of sadness and intense anxiety. For many adults and children, problems can last longer. Post traumatic stress disorder can disrupt life several weeks or even months after a frightening event takes place.

“One’s ability to cope and weather trauma can depend upon individual factors, which could include pre-existing physical, economic or emotional stresses along with the extent of loss. People need to remember, however, that experiencing mental health difficulties in the wake of Hurricane Ike can be a normal response to an abnormal event,” said Lynn Lasky Clark, president and chief executive officer of Mental Health America of Texas.

“We urge anyone who is suffering from distressing symptoms to seek help,” she added. “We also caution that if these symptoms intensify or do not subside over time, they can signal the need for longer term mental health care.”

Research on disasters and mental health problems shows that large numbers of people are at risk of developing deeper and longer lasting mental health problems. Younger children who watch extensive television coverage of a disaster can be at risk. For instance, two years after the Oklahoma City bombing, 16 percent of children within 100 miles of the city reported symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder even though none had direct experience of the event. After the 9-11 World Trade Center attacks, 17 percent of adults living outside New York City reported PTSD symptoms two months after the attacks.

Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, threaten not only life but also housing, work and finances. Common reactions include intense feelings of grief and anger along with sadness and anxiety. Types of symptoms can also include:

• Emotional: shock, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, guilt and numbness.
• Physical: tension, fatigue, edginess, problems sleeping and changes in appetite or sex drive.
• Cognitive: confusion, disorientation, trouble concentrating and memory lapses.
• Relationship problems: irritability, heightened conflicts, isolation, withdrawal, neediness.

In Texas, hurricane survivors coping with emotional distress can call the state’s 2-1-1 referral service. They will be immediately connected to a mental health crisis line that is being operated by trained mental health professionals, said Danette Castle, chief executive officer of Texas Council of Community MHMR Centers. The caller can gain immediate mental health counseling and referrals to mental health services.

Still, challenges remain great for Texas’ hard-hit coastal areas.

“You have a general population devastated by a hurricane and more vulnerable to an emerging mental health crisis,” Castle said Tuesday afternoon. “The MHMR Community Centers out there are not yet fully operational. We’re assessing priorities to get them back on their feet. There are massive power outages, of course. The center in Beaumont is saying, ‘Don’t send us people; send us generators.’”

At Red Cross and other shelters for evacuees elsewhere in the state, mental health professionals are on hand from local MHMR centers to provide direct help, Castle said. Often university health centers, private health providers and non-profits are aiding in the effort as well.

Social supports from families, friends and communities can aid in recovery, but hurricane survivors should not be surprised if symptoms improve only to backslide on anniversary dates, during a later traumatic event or a change in an important relationship.

Longer term help might be needed if a person’s symptoms do not improve over time or are so severe they interfere with daily life. Such symptoms include:

• Dissociation: feelings of unreality, bouts of amnesia or the sensation that one has separated from one’s own body.
• Intrusive replays: flashbacks, nightmares or recurring memories of the event.
• Extreme avoidance behavior: avoiding thoughts, feelings, places or people connected to an event; using alcohol or other substances to shut out troubling memories and emotions.
• Hyper-agitation: feeling jumpy, easily startled, panic attacks, rage and intense agitation.
• Severe depression or anxiety: overly worried about safety; feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness; chronic difficulty falling or staying asleep; thoughts of death or suicide.

“Strong social networks, financial resources to rebuild communities, and effective coping strategies all foster mental health resiliency,” said Clark at Mental Health America of Texas. “Mental health is essential for good physical health, so hurricane survivors who have been traumatized should not hesitate to seek help.”