When a natural disaster strikes, studies show that up to 30 percent of the affected population will experience long-term negative psychological effects.
A noted expert on disaster trauma estimates that the percentage for Hurricane Katrina will be about 15 percent, but that is educated guesswork.
Dr. Kevin J. Becker, director of the Institute for Trauma & Crisis at Harvard Medical School, is on the Coast for a week, providing sessions on the psychological response to disaster for the interested public and health care providers.
"It's hard to get a handle on the numbers because there aren't enough providers here to begin with," said Becker. "The response to a disaster so much depends on who you are as a person and what resources you have afterward.
"Everyone here is impacted, whether or not you had damage to your property, and that is because the whole community is impacted. You can't get away from Katrina. Everyone is talking about it, and it's in the news. The ongoing sensory impact is significant.
"You don't have the advantage here of getting away from it for a while."
Friday morning, Becker gave the first of six free public lectures geared to help the Coast cope with the storm's psychological aftermath.
He is accompanied on this trip by child trauma expert Dr. Jean Bellows of the Massachusetts Institute of Professional Psychology, who will address recognizing trauma in children and parenting in troubled times.
Their visit and that of seven doctoral students from the Massachusetts Institute were organized by Coastal Family Health and Memorial Hospital at Gulfport after Becker, in previous visits, saw a need for more psychological intervention here.
"Disasters have a life cycle," Becker said Friday. "My guess now is that the long-term recovery period will be three to four or five years."
Becker, who has visited 9/11 disaster sites and catastrophe locales in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and other places, has created a graph explaining a disaster's life cycle.
The pre-disaster period includes threat and then impact. That's followed by the heroic period when communities come together and government and volunteers rush in. Next is the honeymoon period, a time of community cohesion.
That is followed by a sense of disillusionment, and Becker said that is where many are now after dealing with insurance, living arrangements and a daily life that little resembles pre-Katrina for shopping, entertainment, socializing and work.
"I think it will take until after the hurricane season for many people to turn the corner of disillusionment," Becker said. "Some have already passed it, but many are there now. Most people bounce back just fine. People adapt."
More tobacco use, substance abuse, anger, depression, lack of sleep, nightmares, avoiding reminders of losses, greater conflict with family, appetite change, withdrawal, and other symptoms are signs of a need for intervention.
Recovery and coming to terms is Becker's next step in the disaster life cycle. Along the way, there are trigger events, such as anniversaries. The final disaster cycle is reconstruction, and then it begins over again with the pre-disaster period, because hurricanes will continue.
Dr. Kevin Becker, director of the Institute for Trauma & Crisis at Harvard Medical School, offers this advice for coping in this post-Katrina world:
Give yourself permission and time to grieve.
Focus on your strengths and coping skills.
Ask for support and help from your family, friends, church or other community resources. Join or develop support groups.
Redefine your priorities and focus your energy and resources on those priorities.
Set small realistic goals to help tackle obstacles. For example, re-establish daily routines for yourself and your family.
Clarify feelings and assumptions about your partner. Remember that men and women react differently. Women tend to be caretakers and put others first. Men have difficulty acknowledging and expressing feelings of helplessness and sadness and believe in "toughing it out."
Eat healthy meals and exercise.
Get enough rest to increase your reserve strength.
Acknowledge unresolved issues and use the hurt and pain as a motivator to make the necessary changes to heal.
Continue to educate yourself and family about normal reactions to a disaster.
Talk to your children. Be supportive. Set an example by expressing your feelings and showing problem-solving skills in dealing with family problems.
Remember that you are not alone.
What: The public and medical and education professionals are invited to the free sessions conducted by two Harvard psychologists on topics to help adults and children cope with post-Katrina stress and other mental health issues:
Sunday: 7 p.m., Main Street United Methodist Church, Bay St. Louis; Dr. Bellows, "Recognizing Trauma in Children" and "Parenting in Times of Trouble."
Monday: 7 p.m. at Memorial Hospital auditorium, Gulfport; Bellows, "Parenting in Times of Trouble."
Two sessions Tuesday:
7 p.m., Memorial Hospital auditorium, Gulfport, Bellows, "Recognizing Trauma in Children." 7 p.m., Main Street United Methodist, Bay St. Louis; Becker, "Psychological Response to Disaster."
Wednesday: 7 p.m., Memorial Hospital auditorium, Gulfport; Becker, "Psychological Response to Disaster."
Details: Memorial Hospital: 867-4700; Coastal Family Health, 818-2766.