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How to cope with Hurricane Ian trauma, stress and anxiety

Experts offer advice on coping strategies, survivor’s guilt, signs of mental distress and more.
A couple embraces while waiting in line for warm food from Scooby’s BBQ and Grub Shack on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, after Hurricane Ian destroyed areas of Port Charlotte and left some without power.
A couple embraces while waiting in line for warm food from Scooby’s BBQ and Grub Shack on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, after Hurricane Ian destroyed areas of Port Charlotte and left some without power. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 7

Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, resources are available to help. Please see the information below.

As Floridians grapple with Hurricane Ian’s devastation, survivors may face anxiety, stress and depression.

Some might feel guilty that they lived and others died. Families may struggle to handle the loss of their home. First responders could be traumatized, too.

The Tampa Bay Times asked two experts for advice on how to handle the storm’s mental health toll.

Here’s what people should know.

What coping strategies can people use?

Common signs of someone struggling after a disaster include trouble falling or staying asleep as well as feelings of helplessness or sadness, and frequent crying.

People should acknowledge and express their feelings, even if it might be uncomfortable to do so. Talk to someone or keep a journal, said Elyssa Barbash, a Tampa psychologist.

If people repress their emotions, they can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

It’s normal and healthy to experience a psychological response to the storm, she said, but people should address it sooner rather than later so it doesn’t become a serious mental health issue.

Speaking with a professional such as a psychologist or therapist may be beneficial, she added.

If someone is overwhelmed, how can they calm down?

Breathe deeply.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, it’s so simple that it probably doesn’t work’ ... but really it’s highly effective,” said Barbash, who owns Tampa Therapy, a group practice. She specializes in treating trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

For those in disaster zones, making a plan on how to take care of themselves and their loved ones may ease their anxiety, added Clara Reynolds, president and CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, a nonprofit.

Related: Where Hurricane Ian survivors can get free mental health help

If someone has survivor’s guilt, what should they know?

Feelings of guilt can surface when a person survives a catastrophic event, but others don’t.

Humans don’t control the weather, said Reynolds, a licensed clinical social worker.

“I may have wished that it didn’t hit here, but that’s all,” she said of Ian. “It (doesn’t) mean that I sent it to Fort Myers.”

If people feel guilty, they can volunteer to help Southwest Florida.

What mental health conditions could develop after the storm?

Anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Barbash said.

In a peer-reviewed study published earlier this year, researchers surveyed over 1,600 Floridians and found that Hurricanes Irma and Michael were linked to post-traumatic stress.

How can family and friends help survivors?

Call them. Respond to their texts. “Be a good listening ear,” Barbash said.

If survivors have severe depression or are contemplating suicide, connect them with 988, the national suicide prevention hotline, Reynolds said.

Related: They rode out Ian on shrimping boats. Now they fear their livelihood is destroyed

What can government officials do for victims?

Be honest about bad news, and communicate frequently with residents, Reynolds said.

“A lot of anxiety lives in the space where people don’t know what’s going on,” she said, “and their mind fills in the blanks for them — or social media fills in the blanks.”

Should people limit how much news they read or watch?

Stay informed, but don’t let the coverage totally consume you, Barbash said.

“There is a line, and everyone has to figure out what that is for themselves,” Barbash said. “Some people won’t turn the TV off. The news is just streaming all day in their house. That might be too much.”

It can become “almost addicting,” Reynolds said.

Related: Hurricane Ian tied to about 100 deaths in Florida, including 1 in Hillsborough

What can parents do if their children seem affected?

Ask them open-ended questions about the storm, such as “how did this make you feel?”

“They may say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m fine,’” Reynolds said. “That’s when you push back a little bit and tell them how it made you feel. Be vulnerable. ... Kids may not even realize what they’re feeling until they hear you describe how you were feeling.”

Do you need help?

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or chat with someone online at 988lifeline.org.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also operates a free 24/7 crisis counseling helpline for people involved in disasters, including hurricanes and tropical storms. People can call or text 1-800-985-5990, and Spanish speakers can press 2 for help in that language. Third-party interpretation services are available for more than 100 other languages.

Related: In Naples, Hurricane Ian brings dramatic rescues and staggering loss

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.

THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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