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How to Provide Psychosocial Support to Friends, Colleagues, and Loved Ones after a Disaster

Supertyphoon Karding just passed through various parts of the Philippines during the writing of this article. Many parts of Luzon were badly hit, others survived with relatively less damage. There are reports coming in of casualties, as well as extensive property and crop damage. In lesser hit areas, life is slowly going back to usual. Still, even when one has been marked as safe in the aftermath, the stress of anticipating and preparing for a potential emergency is likely to still felt.

Unfortunately, climate change has made extreme weather disturbances such as a supertyphoon more frequent, and no one knows this more than Filipinos. While our nation's inherent resilience is hailed all over the world, there is of course always a need to check in on how all of us are doing. More importantly, given that climate change is a pressing concern that needs urgent action but cannot be addressed overnight, there is a call to action regarding long-term systemic solutions that can both protect people from the impact of further extreme weather events and calamities, as well as efforts to work at preventing these extreme weather events and calamities from happening in the first place.

Meanwhile, how can we help our friends and our colleagues in the aftermath of an extreme weather event?

Check-in on basic needs, safety, and security first. Connect to resources.

While checking in on the emotional needs of others is a priority, during a disaster, it is more important to ensure that people are safe, secure, and has access to basic needs. Most people will start to move naturally towards emotional stability without further interventions once basic food, shelter, safety, and security are assured.

Look into what you can offer to help them attain these needs, e.g. offering to rebuild a broken window or bringing them food and supplies for a couple of days. Connect those in need to resources e.g. groups who are doing relief and possibly rescue operations, maybe even directing these resources to their community if no one has made contact yet. If their current shelter is unsafe, check what resources you, your friend group or your company may offer to give them temporary shelter, as it may be safer to stay in a home or hotel, than in a community evacuation site.

Proactively support vulnerable populations.

There are individuals and groups in our circle who may be more vulnerable to the mental health impact of experiencing a disaster. Persons with Disabilities (PWD), for example, as well as young children, pregnant women, and solo parents --- especially if they are living far from support --- are important individuals to check in with first. Persons with pre-existing mental health challenges, such as those with clinical depression or anxiety, especially those recovering from previous disaster-induced stress response and trauma, can be proactively contacted to let them know there is a listening ear available should they need one.

It also is important to note that people are impacted by disasters in different intensities. A person who lost a loved one may need more support than a person whose home was damaged, and further, more support than a person who did not suffer any material losses. Privilege is also an important thing to consider, as someone with a lesser income will have more challenges bouncing back from damage to one's livelihood than a person with more financial security.

Listen empathically and normalize stress reactions.

Anyone can provide mental health and psychosocial support for friends, colleagues, and loved ones, this is not the sole territory of licensed mental health professionals. The most important support we can provide is to listen without judgment and with empathy to our friends, colleagues and loved ones' experiences and emotions.

It is not unusual for those who experience a disaster or calamity to report stress reactions in its immediate aftermath. These reactions may include:

  • appetite changes

  • difficulty sleeping

  • a need to anticipate further risk and calamities

  • body aches and pains

  • difficulty concentrating

  • wanting to withdraw from others

  • feelings of fear, anxiety, loss of control, anger, and frustration

  • mood swings

  • crying episodes

  • lethargy

  • feeling a loss of balance

Normalize these emotions. They are the body's normal response to an extraordinary and potentially threatening event. Do not diagnose these experiences as trauma or any other mental health condition, as even well individuals will experience stress reactions from a disaster experience.

Recognize and build on strengths.

It is easy to feel helpless in the face of Mother Nature, but it is important to recognize and build on one's inherent resilience resources. While one can feel destabilized after experiencing an extreme weather disturbance, and for some, it takes time to feel fully "back to normal," one can look at one's learned coping strategies to get through.

Faith and spirituality has always been considered as one of the top coping resources among Filipinos. The same with being hard-working, optimistic, person and community-oriented. Our ability to show our malasakit and tap into our bayanihan spirit are also strengths to recognize. These, among others can be tapped, to increase well-being. Believe that everyone have their strengths and can pull through. Encourage as well making concrete plans to protect one's self from future similar events and their mental health impacts.

Share stress management and relaxation strategies.

Stress responses from an extraordinary experience can be mitigated with activities and habits aimed at managing stress and increasing feelings of safety, calm, and relaxation. You can share resources, elicit best practices, or even teach these stress managing activities. Some that you can consider include:

  • Breathing exercises

  • Simple Physical Exercises to target body tension

  • Grounding

  • Positive Self-Talk

  • Self-Compassion

  • Talking to a Friend

  • Gradual resumption of routine

Connect to a professional if needed

While in general, survivors of a disaster or calamity do not develop serious mental health problems, it is also helpful to know indicators of seriousness that may need the attention of a mental health professional such as a psychologist or a psychiatrist. These indicators may be observed immediately, or may manifest after some time.

Some of the things to look for include:

  • Persistent thoughts about self-harm or suicide

  • Persistently strong feelings of hopelessness or helplessness

  • Psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions

  • Panic attacks

  • Excessive fears and worries that persist 1-2 months after the disaster experience

  • Threats to harm others

If you or anyone you know could use professional support during this time, you can book a consultation with Childfam-Possibilities Psychosocial Services by emailing or using our book an appointment form in this website.

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