The Menninger Clinic stayed dry during the raging hurricane that devastated Houston, but many staff there lost their homes in the floods.
The clinic, which relocated to Houston from Topeka more than 10 years ago, fared well, said Nancy Trowbridge, communications director. More than 60 patients were in the facility when flooding started, and staff sheltered in place to make sure they would be cared for throughout the ordeal.
“We had a shift that was working and, at the same time, we had a shift that was sleeping,” she said of unit and floor staff. In addition, dietary, housekeeping, engineering and information technology staff also stayed.
Now, some staff members and their families are sheltering in the clinic after losing their homes. Harrell Woodson, Ph.D., and administrative director of outpatient services for Menninger, said the devastation has been widespread and is continuing. On Thursday, he was at a dentist appointment when the dentist was called out because his home was flooding.
As leaders in the mental health field, Woodson and others at Menninger are aware of the mental health effects trauma like Hurricane Harvey may have on the community. The emotional shock can also have cognitive effects, he said.
“People aren’t at their best. Their decision-making capabilities, or their ability to really feel good about themselves — sometimes they don’t feel as effective anymore because they felt so helpless during the event,” he said. “Sometimes there can be intrusive thoughts of nightmares about what had happened. There’s a range of emotional and cognitive or even physical and interpersonal effects on people.”
Reactions to such trauma vary considerably depending on an individual’s history, temperament and whether they’re dealing with other psychiatric conditions, Woodson said.
“Trauma from disaster is very different than trauma from say personal violence, or domestic abuse,” he said. “It’s a little bit different flavor to it in terms of how people understand it or how they respond to it.”
In disasters, sometimes people feel as if they were out of control and can extrapolate that into almost a feeling that they’re being punished by God.
People really struggling with severe depression, increased substance use, or even severe psychotic reactions will need significant extra support.
“When you get beyond a certain point in terms of those symptoms being more chronic, is when you get to a position where someone probably has developed PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder),” Woodson said, adding that acute stress disorder is similar to PTSD, but is of shorter duration.
It’s important, he said, to work toward getting some routine or normalcy in your life. Although he joked about the horror of Starbucks still being closed on Friday, it was really about that symptom of normalcy. When Starbucks or other businesses reopen, people will see that possibility of things getting back to normal.
Watching the replays and stories about the hurricane on television or social media can be a mistake for those who have gone through it, Woodson said. After Katrina hit New Orleans, it was found that those who were exposed to such a horrific event were made to feel worse by watching the disaster information on television.
That constant reliving of the trauma keeps people from getting back into a routine or sense of normalcy, he said.
Trowbridge related to that personally.
“You watch too much TV about it, and you’re wound up,” she said. “I can hardly shut down from looking at social media myself. I probably looked at social media an hour last night just sitting in bed, and that can really be taxing.”
Getting even small bits of routine in place can be critical.
“There needs to be some sense of safety or re-establishing safety, and I think that’s very important,” Woodson said. “People in a disaster situation, the most important thing that has to happen is they need to be some place that they can feel safe physically and that your immediate basic needs are taken care of. It’s hard to help somebody from a mental health point of view if they’re not physically safe.”
It’s too early to know how Menninger personnel may reach out to the community or what might even be needed from a mental health perspective. Right now, many are just grappling with the devastation to their own lives.
“One of the really positive things about this, is most people will recover,” Woodson said. “Most of the time, the stress reactions will not become permanent, long-lasting illness.”
Woodson encouraged people in Topeka who are still connected to Menninger employees to reach out and show them emotional support, just checking to see how they’re doing.
“Right now, we’re just in our own state of shock. We’re trying to figure out how to first help out staff. We opened our doors to our staff who are displaced and who lost their homes and their families who are seeking shelter. We’re still in the recovery phase here.”