Sunday, May 29, 2011

News stories on CNN inspired this note

The spiral of psychological well being after the tornado whirlwinds

Joseph O. Prewitt Diaz[1], PhD
The last two weeks I have been in an emotional Roller coaster watching Anderson Cooper and the request of the CNN team describing the effects of the tornadoes and flooding in Middle America. As a psychologist who specializes on disaster management and humanitarian assistance every word, action, and strategy displaced by the government to resolve the crisis was brought a comment from my side on how to do it better. After watching the Memorial Service in Missouri this afternoon I realized that maybe there wasn’t a clear understanding of the psychological effect of these disasters, so let me share so points related to this topic.
The psychological meaning of the disaster had do with home. Home as our place provide us with privacy, comfort and security. Home is a place for development and maintaining social relationship and lasting attachments that bring strong ties to home. It is where the children grew, where the young bride and groom came together to make a family. It is here the neighborhood group got together to watch the football game, or to play poker, or to have a prayer meeting.  The tornadoes not only destroyed the physical home but the social relationships that the home represented.
There are three points that I would like to discuss based on the comments I heard on TV. All of this comments I have heard over the last two weeks I heard in CNN.
1.     Disruption, destruction and displacement.  Disaster-affected people have reported (a) suffering devastation, (b) being heartbroken, (c) feeling that this was a traumatic experience, (d) feeling unmotivated, or  (e) having lost interest of staying here. We may decide to reconstruct elsewhere.  The life of the disaster-affected people has been disrupted. Private houses have become public and personal possessions have become public property. Everything has been destroyed: property, possessions, people’s life identities, personal histories and attachments. People report that they are outcasts in their own homes and communities. They share there fears that the may not belong in the new place. They copying the best they can but feel alienated in their community. 

2.     Reconstruction, restoration and return to the routine. One comment caught my ear: “we have spent a lifetime building our home and lovingly restoring those part that we felt had to be restored, only for it to be thrashed”. The process of reconstruction is not simple. Once the FEMA and Red Cross representative have filled out all the paperwork and the insurance companies have been notified, then is the parade of new and strange people in our lives.: (a) the insurance company, (b) loss adjusters, building contractors, and retail outlets where we can get better prices for construction materials to name a few.  As disaster-affected people begin the restoration process, they report being scared of all that was ahead of them. At least they now that the relation toward “home” has changed, they don’t quite identify with the new place, and express their worry of “being stuck here”. “What if this happens again in a year or two?” Returning to the routine is a “chore”. Disaster-affected people normal lives and costumes have been suspended. They will have to build new lives and customs, and a new place. They were all part of the “relationship” with the old home. “Where to go?” “What awaits for my family and I?” are some of the concerns.

3.     Psychological response or achieving well-being.  There are at least three areas of psychological concern: (1) personal and familial identification, (2) personal and social identification, and (3) boundary issues as represented by a perception of private and inclusive domain as opposed to “public” and exclusive domains.

I am well aware that the impact of the psychological health are more severe and longer lasting that the physical sequalae of the tornadoes and that everybody doesn’t respond in the same way to the same stressors.  Maybe it is important to begin to think publicly about the three factors mentioned above. CNN you are the leaders in communication, can you take on this challenge?

[1] Dr. Prewitt Diaz is a Visiting Professor and Director of the Disaster Law and Policy Center, School of Law, University of Puerto Rico. He is the recipient of the 2008 APA International Humanitarian Award. 

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