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Trauma From Hurricane Ian Will Leave Lasting Mark

Deborah Beidel, a psychologist and University of Central Florida psychology professor, said those who found their homes uninhabitable after the storm may experience trauma responses to cope with the losses.

Members of the Texas A&M Task Force 1 Search and Rescue team look for anyone needing help after Hurricane Ian passed through the area on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Fort Myers, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)
(TNS) - Though Hurricane Ian will be measured by the death and destruction it caused across the state, experts warn the storm’s aftermath will also include lingering harm to many Floridians’ mental health.

Deborah Beidel , a psychologist and University of Central Florida psychology professor, said those who found their homes uninhabitable after the storm may experience trauma responses to cope with the losses.

“You might be experiencing a lot of depression at this time because everything that you build your entire life in some cases has been washed away,” Beidel said.

Beidel has been serving the State Fire Marshal’s office since Sept. 30, coordinating the mental components of urban search and-rescue teams. She said events like Ian can trigger anxiety and stress for those going through recovery.

“If you were among the people who had to suddenly flee your home because the water is coming, you may be experiencing traumatic stress, such as reimagining that particular event, having nightmares about that event, or maybe even having difficulty sleeping,” she said.

Beidel said experiencing hopelessness, exhaustion and even trouble eating are common and standard responses that come with the impact of a natural disaster.

Among the many areas affected in Central Florida is the east of Orange County, where more than 500 UCF students have requested financial help from the institution.

Beidel said the financial hardship on students after the hurricane could limit their ability to study and keep up with assignments.

“We can only multitask so far and it’s going to be difficult to study for exams, if at the same time, you don’t have a laptop where you stored all your notes, or you have to go sit in a car repair shop for several hours to get your car repaired,” she said.

Beidel said this is the time for educators to be kinder and more understanding with students impacted. UCF’s provost, Michael Johnson , has urged faculty to consider postponing assignments, exams and due dates in the storm’s wake.

An analysis of Orange County’s mental health system released this year found that housing challenges were a major theme among those seeking mental health care.

Donna Wyche, manager of Orange County’s mental health and homelessness division, said on Wednesday the county had seen an increase in calls from residents asking for assistance, both financial and for mental health.

“We’ve gotten calls and emails today about, you know, how we can help in our emergency management system or the mayor’s office, everyone is looking for help from FEMA,” Wyche said. “We’re looking for housing vouchers to at least get people in safe accommodations until we can work through all this.”

Wyche said the county’s crisis hotline 2-1-1 can provide immediate assistance for emergencies, but she encouraged residents to reach out to community health centers for long-term patient care.

Florida ranks second in the country in the prevalence of mental illness and 49th in access to mental health care, according to the 2022 State of Mental Health in America report.

Wyche said the county works toward combating an already overwhelmed mental health care system, but there’s only so much the local government can do.

“This is a federal responsibility, it’s a state responsibility, it is not a county responsibility,” Wyche said. “But we put a lot of money into trying to address the needs in Orange County, and the mayor just added an additional $10 million to that budget, and well, we’re working diligently to fill some of those gaps so people can get the services they need.”

Wyche encouraged residents to access resources available in the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, Mental Health America as well as the national lifeline 988.

Melanie Brown-Woofter, CEO and president of the Florida Behavioral Health Association, said Ian may have both short-term and long-term effects on Floridians.

“You may see people who are numb, who have no emotion, you may see people who are crying constantly, who have nightmares who suffer from anxiety and there’s also grief that happens,” she said

Brown-Woofter said some people may not realize they need help and those around them must be able to identify behaviors that indicate a decline in mental health. She said people must observe closely for drastic changes in daily behavior, agitation or a tendency to lose their temper, trouble remembering details and withdrawal from activities such as church, office meetings, or family events.

“If we can work to address those early on, when people are ready to talk about them, and to continue that support, then we can help to lessen that trauma,” Brown-Woofter said.

Brown-Woofter said that “neighbors helping neighbors” after the hurricane is what will help the community build resilience.

“The best interventions that we can do is just simply to reach out to someone and acknowledge them, ask them if they’re okay, and just to just to have a conversation with them about how they’re feeling,” Brown-Woofter said.

Although human losses are more profound in grief than material ones, Beidel said the sudden material loss after a hurricane may be hard to process.

“Sometimes the simplest thing, such as saying, ‘Hey, I’m checking on you,’ or “Hey, I’m going to the grocery store, what can I get for you?’ is the most important thing that that person who is grieving will hear that day, and it may be the thing that reminds them that there is hope and that we will all get through this together,” Beidel said.

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