How to Cope with Mental Health During Natural Disasters

Houston landscape shot

Our hearts are heavy with sadness for all those affected by the unthinkable damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. At Talkspace we strongly believe in solidarity and kindness as keys to a healthy community and society. This guiding principle is why we have joined the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts by sharing our resources in any way possible.

In addition to a donation to a local food bank, we are offering a free, therapist-led support group on Facebook for those affected by this disaster. We hope this group will provide a safe space to grieve losses and process complex and overwhelming emotions. This step can help begin the healing process and let people know they are not alone.

When a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey ravages the land, thousands of people lose their homes. News organizations send hundreds of photos and videos that show the extent of the destruction. Reporters and citizens document every flooded street, toppled building or crowded shelter.

But there is another type of damage that is more difficult to see and quantify: the impact on mental health. Victims of natural disasters often experience trauma and grief that plagues them long after they have found a new home. The stress of fighting for survival can make people more vulnerable to developing mental health conditions, including depression and post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD].

Those who know people in areas affected by natural disasters experience distress as well. Because hurricanes and floods can damage communications systems, some have to wait days before they know if their loved ones are alive. In the meantime they cope with unbearable anxiety.

Even for people with no direct connection to the catastrophe, the constant news coverage can prevent them from going about their day normally. It can be challenging to focus on work when thousands of people need immediate support. Reports on natural disasters can also be triggering for people who survived previous tragedies.

To provide emotional support, we consulted our therapists who have experience treating victims of natural disasters. Here is some of their advice for coping with mental health, along with resources and guidance for anyone affected by this tragedy:

For Survivors of the Disaster

Talkspace therapist Rebecca Steimans recommended survivors attempt to contact a mental health professional within 24 to 72 hours of traumatic experience. Debriefing allows victims to cope with some of the emotions related to trauma and grief, Steimans said.

Here are some resources that will help you quickly reach someone with training in crisis, trauma or grief counseling:

If you feel overwhelmed, focus on your breathing for a bit, nothing else. As you calm down, try to clear your mind. Think about whether you are fulfilling basic needs: eating, drinking, sleeping, and having access to shelter. Don’t worry about anything more complicated until you have these necessities.

For People With Loved Ones Affected by the Disaster

To help your loved ones heal, listen to their stories. Ask how you can support them. They will most likely answer.

If there is room in your home, offer them a place to recuperate. Even if it’s cramped, they will be grateful for the hospitality.

For People Who Want to Help Victims

The easiest and most efficient way to support victims of natural disasters is to donate money to an organization that provides relief:

If you want to help even more and have the flexibility to travel, consider volunteering. You can sign up via the below links:

For People Feeling Triggered By the Disaster

The news coverage of the recent tragedy might be causing you distress, especially if you have PTSD or an anxiety disorder. If you are a survivor of a similar disaster, the current situation might resurface traumatic memories and intense emotions. The following resources can help you cope:

Recovering from a natural disaster can be a long process. To fully heal, we need to be mindful of mental health issues, including grief, stress and trauma.

Published by

Joseph Rauch

Staff Writer at Talkspace