Recovery Phase Can Last a Lifetime
Editor’s Note: Today it’s been a week since the destructive tornado in Moore, Oklahoma and attention is turning to the long, arduous task of rebuilding. Some of the tasks are easy to identify like rebuilding homes, schools and retail stores.Other tasks are more complicated, such as rebuilding the fabric and traditions of a community.
But other challenges can linger for years as people deal with the trauma of experiencing this horrific storm or the tragedy of losing a loved one. We asked Lori Bertman, president of the Pennington Foundation and a co-founder of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to give us her insights into some of the long-term mental health issues after a natural disaster. Here’s what she shared:
This is my personal story, like a cautionary tale. When I was collecting pictures for my father’s 75th birthday, I noticed a picture of my 10-year-old daughter holding a fishing pole. I didn’t immediately recognize her because when the photo was taken I was gone rescuing New Orleans from the floods of Hurricane Katrina. This went on for years. She is 16 now and looking at colleges, driving a car, absolutely beautiful and has a great heart of service. My son, is exactly the same. I remember kissing my children goodbye at six and eight when the levee breached. I don’t remember coming back at least mentally.
If the average length of recovery of a catastrophic natural disaster is 10 years, that is a too long in a child’s life and too long in a mother’s life. Homelessness, loss of income, chronic disease and lack of support will pull people down deeper into a mental health crisis and lower their resilience as individuals, and a community as a whole.
Mental health programs need to be a high priority for all involved: responders, nonprofits, philanthropy professionals and especially for those who are direct survivors or lost family members. Oklahoma, Louisiana, New York and New Jersey are strong states. From bombings to multiple tornadoes, to multiple hurricanes, we all need help and someone to talk to about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); depression; the loss of opportunities for children to run on boardwalks; the fear of 19 hurricanes predicted in the Gulf this year; and veterans who never recovered from the bombings from 20 years ago who are wounded both emotionally and physically.
Not everyone adapts in the same way and it is a an important to acknowledge that beyond all of these catastrophic community events are personal events like divorce, death, illness that hold people back in their recovery. These are called compounding events and we unfortunately can’t account for them unless we have people looking out for others and structured treatment programs. My child Sophie is going to Israel next month to perform service in five countries and told me I made her an independent child and she is so proud of my work.
I was lucky. My children are children of Katrina. I am a responder/practitioner of Katrina and five other disasters and never got a stitch of help. I don’t recommend it. PTSD is very real and not something only for first responders or veterans. My experience and personal advice to philanthropists thinking of supporting the Oklahoma recovery is to invest in mental health. The relief phase can be very short but the recovery phase can last a lifetime.