The Aftermath of a Shared Trauma

Hurricane Sandy was a shared trauma which affected millions throughout the region.  Many had their lives disrupted by loss of loved ones, their homes and their livelihood.  Most of us saw the devastation hour after hour, day after day on television, on line and in the newspapers. WE saw the suffering of  others and feared for the safety of those we care about as well as our own.

With the continued difficulties and the recovery effort, in so many ways,  only now just beginning, Sandy’s impact will remain with us for some time to come.  The amount of psychological trauma for those hit hardest cannot be measured.  Part of their recovery process would best be accompanied by counseling and emotional support along with the concrete help needed to rebuild their lives.

In the aftermath of September 11th, the greatest focus was, and quite naturally, placed upon the needs of those who lost someone as a result of the attacks.  Again, this shared trauma required us, both as professionals and fellow New Yorkers, to come to the aid of the friends and relatives of the deceased.  But, attention also had to be given to those who were not immediately affected by the attack, but suffered internally in days, weeks, months and even years to come.  Everyone experienced the devastation, from seeing the towers struck by the planes in person to watching it over and over again on television.  We were reminded constantly of the devastating losses incurred by others from photos of missing persons in the subway to memorials and rebuts.  We were also reminded of a new-found sense of vulnerability that most of us had never known before.  In the presence of those who seemed to need the help the most, many kept their own fears inside, thinking that their experience paled in comparison to those who lost someone or who were effected in the recovery effort.  But those of us who participated in mental health recovery through the work of organizations such as Project Liberty and The American Red Cross learned that the trauma incurred by this act of terrorism was far-reaching and very often hidden from view.  Increasing reports of panic, agoraphobia, flashbacks and insomnia were given by those who reached out for help.  Many reported an increased desire to isolate, a preoccupation with loss and, again, a persistent sense of vulnerability.

While the two events certainly had their distinct differences, the long-term aftermath of Hurricane Sandy should be regarded as an event that could produce similar effects in persons both directly and indirectly impacted by the devastation and loss resulting from the storm.

Pay attention to yourself and your loved ones.   If you experience any of the symptoms described earlier, or see that others might be, articulate them both to yourself and others.  It was very clear after 9/11 that, when people held in feelings of fear and vulnerability, other symptoms could follow and grow if not addressed: panic, insomnia, isolation, obsessive fears were often seen in clients who sought help after earlier declining to do so.  The typical report seemed to be “I thought they would just go away”.  But, left untreated, any degree of trauma likely worsens or remains dormant only to be unearthed later by another trauma or even subtle reminders of the original one.

To paraphrase a mantra born in the aftermath of September 11th, If you feel something, say something.  If you notice changes in your behavior or that of someone close to you, articulate them to someone with the idea of addressing them early.  Use support services available to all of us, such as calling 1-800-LIFENET, to speak to someone in confidence  and find other resources.  Relief can also be found in participating in the recovery effort, combatting a sense of helplessness often experienced in a disaster of this magnitude.

Volunteer, donate needed items, help a neighbor get their life back on track.  Participation can reinforce a shared sense of community that can be mutually beneficial to all of us.


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