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In Sandy’s Wake: Managing Mental Illness after a Disaster and Finding Support

By Courtney Reyers, NAMI Director of Publishing

Studies from a prior earthquake in Taiwan suggest that individuals living with serious mental illness are at risk for getting sicker after disasters.1 Here, in the U.S., Superstorm Sandy displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes—with more than 70,000 homes and businesses being destroyed in New Jersey alone. The storm also claimed 47 lives in New York, 24 in New Jersey and in the end was responsible for more than 100 deaths in the U.S. The stress and horror of a natural disaster of such magnitude not only makes receiving mental health care difficult or impossible, it can also serve as a catalyst for episode onset or cause major stress, anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.

A report by the National Council on Disability identified several problems that made our country’s last disaster, Hurricane Katrina, especially difficult for individuals with serious mental illness.2 In the response to Katrina, there was not enough planning for how to accommodate people living with serious mental illness in shelters and evacuation plans did not take this group into consideration.  As a result some individuals living with serious mental illness were left behind when the storm came and some who evacuated were turned away from shelters. A recent study from Los Angeles confirmed that individuals living with serious mental illness are still less prepared for disasters than the general population.3

To make sure you’re always prepared, here are some tips from Dr. Anand Pandya, M.D., psychiatrist at Cedars-Sinai Department of Psychiatry and co-founder of Disaster Psychiatry Outreach:

  1. Contact your local Office of Emergency Management. This is often the state or local government organization that is responsible for planning for a disaster. Ask them whether their plans include explicit details of how to address the needs of individuals living with serious mental illness. Find your local office at www.fema.gov.
  2. If you or your loved one lives with serious mental illness, work on your own individual safety plan. Make sure it includes a “go kit,” which is a bag of essential supplies in the event that you need to leave your home suddenly. Aside from items that everyone could use in their “go kits” (such as a copy of a photo ID), people living with mental illness should consider specific items such as copies of insurance cards and a few days supply of medication. Ready.gov is a website that offers some basic steps that will help ensure people are prepared in case of a disaster.
  3. Keep important telephone numbers (including numbers for people who live out of town) on a piece of paper. As we get more and more dependent on cellphones that can remember telephone numbers for us, the number of people who are unable to recall a telephone number when there is an emergency is striking. This is not only an issue for disasters. Many individuals living with mental illness have been hospitalized unexpectedly and unable to contact friends or family because their cellphone battery has died.
  4. Many agencies have drills that prepare for disasters. Aside from government agencies, organizations such as the American Red Cross and hospitals practice how they will respond to disasters. Because individuals living with mental illness (or their advocates) are rarely involved in these drills, organizations are unlikely to think about the special needs of this population when they go through a drill. Even if someone involved in the drill does consider the needs of individuals and families living with serious mental illness, their assumptions about mental illness may be incorrect. As we know, there is no substitute for the lived experience of mental illness so we can’t count on others to understand the real difficulties that we would face in these circumstances.

In Sandy’s wake, a benefit concert will be held on Dec. 12, streaming free and live on TV and on the web. Visit the 12/12/12 Concert website for more information.

 

1 Tseng K-C, Hemenway D, Kawachi I, et al: The impact of the Chi-Chi earthquake on the incidence of hospitalizations for schizophrenia and on concomitant hospital
choice. Community Mental Health Journal Volume 46: pages 93–101, 2010

2 National Council on Disability: The Needs of People with Psychiatric Disabilities
During and After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: Position Paper and Recommendations.
Washington, DC, National Council on Disability, 2006

3 Eisenman DP, Zhou Q, Ong M, et al: Variations in disaster preparedness by mental
health, perceived general health, and disability status. Disaster Medicine and Public
Health Preparedness Volume 3:pages 33–41, 2009

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