Tsunami Aftershock: Grief, Sickness
Disease, Mental Health Woes Yet to Peak as Tsunami Disaster Continues
WebMD News Archive
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
"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
"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
"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:
"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."