Hurricane Harvey could cause mental health problems

Jennifer Liu

Hurricane Harvey devastated huge areas of Texas, displacing families from their homes, causing irreparable damages to buildings and needlessly claiming innocent lives. When disaster strikes, it can be easy to get caught up in the intensive process of emergency management. Lives and entire communities must be rebuilt, taking months — even years — to return to the way they were before.

However, it is during these times of stress and hardship that people should focus on both physical and emotional needs, according to Emily Doyle, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Dell Medical School.

Doyle said the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina gave a preview of the mental health issues that can be anticipated after a natural disaster of a similar caliber. 

“Understandably, many (of those who were affected by Harvey) are anxious about what the future holds for them,” Doyle said. “Some were exposed to scenes of extreme suffering, injury or even death. Some were in a position to fear for their own lives. These events can trigger intense fear, helplessness or horror.”

Doyle said natural disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey, can cause these psychological reactions because humans instinctively respond to stress. 

“A physiological response to stress is built into our DNA,” Doyle said. “It’s what allows us to fight or flee in dangerous situations. So, it’s in our biology.”

Two people who have suffered the same traumatic event may have extremely different responses. One may only experience mild symptoms for a short period of time, while the other may be severely psychologically or mentally impaired, Doyle said.

Some people are more susceptible to psychological trauma than others. Genetic contributions and prior life experience can increase the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, said Stephen Strakowski, department chair of psychiatry at Dell Medical School. 

“People who’ve been through prior trauma, particularly as children, are also at increased risk, as are people struggling with other psychiatric conditions like bipolar disorder,” Strakowski said.

According to Doyle, the most common emotional responses that may result from events like Hurricane Harvey include confusion, numbness, anger, sadness or fear.

“For some, however, (it) will precipitate psychiatric disorders and substance use disorders,” Doyle said.

According to Doyle, substance-abuse disorders are common in the wake of disasters. This may be because people impacted by trauma may use psychoactive substances to self-medicate.

Laura Gold, the prevention services program manager at Austin-Travis County Integral Care, said that some more common mental health issues that can arise include suicidal ideation, depression and anxiety.

“Some people who may already have a mental health … or substance use diagnosis may be more susceptible to … psychological stress,” Gold said.

For most people, these issues will not become too severe and will resolve themselves in time, but if people’s relationships, professional and personal lives begin to be affected, it’s a warning sign to seek help, Doyle said. 

One of the best ways that people can help others alleviate stress and provide emotional support is by listening. 

“Intuitively, most people will talk about their stress with the people they know and trust,” Doyle said. “This talking helps us to heal and recover emotionally.”

UT students affected by Harvey can find help at the Counseling and Mental Health Center, and University employees can call 512-471-3366 to reach the Employee Assistance Program.

Austin-Travis County Integral Care can be reached at 512-472-4357.