Mental health issues just hitting flood victims

Experts warn now is the time to seek help

Victims of Alberta’s June floods may only now be feeling its impact on their mental health say experts.

Speaking at the University of Calgary’s After the Flood: Making Resilient Communities symposium on October 18 psychiatrist Dr. Michael Trew warned that victims are only now entering a period of stress and disillusionment typical for disaster victims.

Trew has practised psychiatry in Calgary for 30 years and is Alberta’s first chief mental health officer. He was appointed immediately after the floods to co-ordinate government and non-governmental agencies’ response to the mental and emotional stresses victims were expected to suffer.

Trew explains that in most disasters the affected population is first concerned with personal safety and immediately afterward enters what he calls the “hero phase” where people are bolstered by recovery efforts and the opportunity to help. Months later deep stress and depression over the disaster may sink in.

“We’re starting to see some people who… the effects of the flood continues to effect their day to day life and emotional well-being” he says in an interview. “People really are coming to terms that they can’t avoid the reality that there are going to be many things that are just never quite the same…. We’re probably just at the beginning of that process.”

Paul Bartel manager of organizational performances at the Calgary Distress Centre says the timing at which people called the centre’s 211 information line versus its crisis line confirms what Trew is saying.

“On our 211 line it shot up pretty much immediately [after the flood]. It was up about 30 per cent right away…. The crisis lines took a little longer to start showing an increase but from our perspective that made complete sense because 211 is people finding information and resources which everybody needed right away and the crisis lines are more about the emotional supports piece which I think for a lot of people took a little while to realize” says Bartel.

“We know from the research we’ve been looking into that the impacts from this will go on for quite a while yet particularly on the mental and emotional side. That’s what takes the longest” he adds.

Staff at the Calgary Counselling Centre agree.

“It’s between six to eight weeks after a natural disaster that people start to finally look at their mental health” says Tara Linsley the centre’s media spokesperson.

Calgary Counselling Centre counsellor McKenzie Whalley says that because of the delay many clients don’t realize the emotional and mental issues they are suffering stem from the flood.

“People are coming in with depression anxiety relationship problems post-traumatic stress things like that or just feeling like ‘I can’t focus’ and a lot of it is a result from the flood and they might not be able to connect…. [They] don’t realize that it is a loss and there is a grieving process” says Whalley.

The Calgary Counselling Centre reports that within four weeks of the flood it was receiving 38 per cent more calls than average. Those numbers tapered off over the summer but the centre expects calls to remain high for months to come as a direct result of the flood.

Bartel says calls to the Calgary Distress Centre’s 211 line and crisis lines are 10 and five per cent above normal rates respectively.

Trew also points out the mental health of children and people without strong social networks to fall back on are suffering the most.

“Younger children do seem to be more at risk for especially fears and anxieties they’re having trouble coping with…. They haven’t developed some of the intellectual ways that we usually use to deal with difficult situations. So for instance we’ve heard stories where it started to rain outside and kids became very anxious simply because they’re connecting it with the last time it rained or it rained and there was a flood” Trew says.

Under Trew’s guidance the provincial government has been working closely with organizations such as the Calgary Counselling Centre and the Distress Centre to make sure flood victims address their mental and emotional issues sooner rather than later.

“It’s important that people seek comfort and support so re-establishing routines connecting with other people. Another thing would be acknowledging and accepting your feelings. Being aware of what’s going on in your life and going ‘you know what? Maybe this is something that’s bigger than me that I need to address with somebody else’” advises Whalley.

The government is also holding a series of workshops in southern Alberta for parents and caregivers to help children recover mentally. The next workshops in Calgary will be held on October 29 30 and November 20. Information about these workshops and other services for flood victims is available on the Alberta government website.