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Chaos, crime add to Katrina’s mental woes -experts

September 1, 2005

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The human violence that emerged
after Hurricane Katrina as survivors desperately sought food
and water will worsen the psychological debris left by the
natural disaster itself, U.S. health experts warned on
Thursday.

The struggle to stay alive is likely to trigger a rash of
stress-related issues that can lead to depression and anxiety,
especially among vulnerable children, experts said.

“Social order is just breaking down,” said psychologist
Debra Borys, a disaster specialist who practices in Los
Angeles. “To have the human-to-human violence added to the
violence of nature — people could feel there is no safety.”

That stress can add to the problems of coping with the
aftermath of the storm itself, which wiped out much of the U.S.
Gulf Coast, flooding Louisiana and Mississippi and displacing
tens of thousands of people.

Scarce food and water has led to looting and arson fires.
On Wednesday, a National Guard soldier was shot and wounded in
New Orleans. Being tired, hungry and hot also makes the
aftermath hard to deal with, experts said.

“When the resources run out they tend to have more
difficulty in coping,” said Gerard Jacobs, a psychologist and
head of the University of South Dakota’s Disaster Mental Health
Institute.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is often associated with
wartime combat, but it can strike after very stressful events
such as natural disasters. People who survive are left shaken
and can have flashbacks and nightmares.

Psychologists are most worried about children, especially
those who have been separated from their families.

Parents struggling themselves to find shelter, food and
other basic necessities may find it hard to explain the loss to
their children.

Judith Myers-Walls, a child development and family studies
professor at Purdue University in Indiana, said parents need to
constantly talk to their children about the situation.

“It’s important that they realize parents don’t need to
have all the answers,” she said. “By being honest, parents can
show their kids how to cope with being afraid.”

While authorities are focusing on basic needs, experts said
they should also bolster counseling and related services.

Stress and anxiety can affect other diseases and trigger
behavioral changes such as drug use, smoking and lethargy,
according to federal health officials.

Signs of mental trouble may not show up for weeks or even
months, but reports show refugees from Katrina are growing
frustrated and angry.

As the death toll mounts, survivors must also cope with the
sight of dead bodies and other gruesome images. Experts said
survivors may be blocking out grief for now but that the loss
will eventually hit them.

“I think that we will find people adjusting to the
experience really for the rest of their lives,” Jacobs said.




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