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Tsunami Aftershock: Grief, Sickness

Disease, Mental Health Woes Yet to Peak as Tsunami Disaster Continues

Tsunami Aftershocks: Mental Illness

Experts are only beginning to appreciate the mental health toll of huge disasters. Intense studies of recent disasters -- including Hurricane Andrew in Florida, the 9/11 attacks, and the 1988 Armenian earthquake -- provide startling numbers. A large proportion of survivors, Marshall says, will suffer major depression or posttraumatic stress disorder. Many more will get stuck in the worst part of the grieving process, a phenomenon known as complicated grief.

"The mental health consequences of disaster are alarming," Marshall tells WebMD. "For adults with the worst exposure -- those who feared for their lives, or narrowly escaped losing life, or dealt with the most horrific aftermath such as having to bury loved ones -- the PTSD rate could be 30% in adults and 50% in children."

The scale of this mental health tsunami is difficult to imagine. Marshall's estimates are based largely on studies of industrialized nations. Studies suggest that the mental health consequences of a disaster are even more severe in developing nations. Even in the best of times, these people have scarce resources.

"What we cannot estimate now is how many survivors witnessed the horrific aftereffects of the tsunami," Marshall says. "It is expected that probably the majority of those people will recover if their social support systems are more or less intact. But when entire communities are affected, social support systems are devastated."

Tsunami Aftershocks in America

Those indirectly affected by disasters do not, of course, suffer anything like those in harm's way. But we are affected.

Few among us are not deeply moved by the tsunami disaster. Fewer still feel no empathy for the survivors' plight. And the awful scenes of human grief make us remember the losses we've suffered in our own lives and the disasters we've survived.

"If you can afford to help, it can actually make the giver feel better, to feel you have made some contribution to the recovery effort after the tsunami," Marshall says. "Forty percent of Americans made donations after 9/11. People said that was the way they coped. Being part of the world effort to reach out to these poor people helps us, too."

Whenever and wherever there's a disaster, people have one need in common: other people.

"For those very disturbed by the tsunami and experiencing a lot of distress, the most important way to deal with this is to really talk about it with other loved ones and friends and family and your local neighborhood community," Marshall says. "When one is extremely distressed, there is a remarkable comfort in the presence of other people."

Some of us will need more.

"There will be people who find themselves replaying images of the tsunami in their minds, or imagining over and over again what it would be like to be swept out to sea and drown," Marshall says. "There will be those who will reexperience their own trauma because the tsunami triggered that memory. Often that can be temporary. But it is important for someone experiencing something like that to try to control that in their own mind. Try distraction, try talking to someone else. Don't sit alone with these frightening images and dwell on it. It can pass, but if someone stuck with these images, it may be good to seek professional consultation."

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