Mental health services available for tornado victims

By Marlena Hartz : Freedom Newspapers

These wounds cannot be seen or felt or touched. But they are just as painful as those that can.

Mental health officials said victims of Friday’s tornado can endure the same emotional effects as soldiers in wars. And the mental toll of surviving a disaster can be triggered weeks or months after the disaster occurs and can last a lifetime, they said.

“(Disaster victims) have an emotional wound — a wound that has attacked their sensitivities, their sense of sight, sense of hearing,” said Robert Bell, executive director of Mental Health Resources of Clovis.

Clovis resident Joyce Wolfe, 72, survived a tornado in Texas years ago.
“Now, whenever it starts thundering and lightning, I get jittery,” she said.
Wolfe heard sirens blasting Friday in Clovis — a warning of the approaching tornado — and hid with her great-granddaughter underneath a bed.

Her great-granddaughter, Caitlynn Almond, 9, sat on the great-grandmother’s porch Wednesday. She wrapped her arms tightly around her Wolfe’s neck as the two talked about how close the tornado came to their home, which is just a few blocks from the spot where a trailer slammed into and cracked open a bowling alley.

“The lights went out. It was a loud clattering and clanging,” Caitlynn gushed. “My neighbor said we can hide in her basement the next time this happens.”

Every person who survives disasters deals with them differently, according to Bell and other mental health officials.

Many times, months pass until people realize how deeply they’ve been affected, Bell said. The shock of a disaster and the flurry of activity that usually follows, such as cleaning up, can mask the emotional pain of suddenly losing possessions, homes, cars, and a sense of safety, he said.

Often, delayed stress can set in about seven to 12 days after a disaster occurs, mental health officials said.

That stress sometimes leads to a more serious condition, called Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which is an anxiety disorder associated with experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event.

The emotional plight of soldiers who returned from wars, especially the Vietnam War, helped build knowledge of PTSD.

Disaster survivors often experience “the same thing soldiers in war went through,” said Mac McNell, an American Red Cross coordinator from San Antonio, Texas, who is in Clovis to aid tornado victims.

So far, less than 20 Clovis tornado victims have sought mental health services through the Red Cross and Mental Health Resources, according to officials with those organizations. That is a sliver of those who were affected.

More than 500 homes and businesses were damaged in the tornado, the worst in Clovis’ history. About 75 homes were destroyed, according to the latest figures. One person has died and 35 were injured.

Roughly 70 damaged homes are still occupied because people refuse to leave, Red Cross officials said. They are scared to leave possessions behind, they said.
Red Cross officials hope victims will take advantage of mental health and other resources in the wake of the storm.

Seeking mental help following a disaster “scares a lot of people, but it shouldn’t,” said Marge Creager, an American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer and certified counselor.

Creager, who been a Red Cross volunteer for 60 years, said disaster victims go through emotional phases, much like a person who has lost a loved one. They experience shock; they are grateful they survived.

“After they’ve see all they’ve lost, the tears come,” she said.

“Sometimes,” she said, “people just want to talk… Sometimes, what they need is a good hug.”

A tumult of emotions are normal following a disaster, but if they interfere with daily activities or become all-consuming, professional help should be sought, mental health officials said.

“If an individual finds themselves … questioning whether they can cope, it’s foolish to postpone seeing a professional,” Bell said.