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A Sense of Place: Helping Victims of Natural Disasters

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

My heart goes out to everyone in Oklahoma and beyond that was affected by the horrendous tornado that swept through the region on Monday, May 20, 2013. The loss of life was astonishing, the number injured devastating, and the damage to infrastructure, businesses, and homes almost inconceivable.

The mental health implications of such a disaster are numerous. Those who lost loved ones, neighbors, and friends will be working through their grief while simultaneously trying to put the pieces of their own lives back together. Some will develop post-traumatic stress disorder due to the trauma of living through a natural disaster and seeing things that most people never experience in real life. Others will assume leadership roles, parental stances, and otherwise “pull-up-your-bootstraps” mentalities that help others feel strong, but that also come with their own psychological costs.

Perhaps what I think of most when considering the long-term impacts of the tornado is the sense of place that is central to our lives. We all identify with a certain place as “home,” and that home is a psychological as well as physical comfort. It grounds us, it allows us to seek refuge, and it feels like one of the few things in life on which we can depend.

So what happens when that comfort – our sense of place – gets ripped from our lives? Suddenly, we are adrift. We cannot seek refuge or safety in that one place we always counted on for security and consistency. Our equilibrium is forever altered. According to the American Psychological Association, some of the normal responses to this kind of tragedy are shock, denial, intense emotions, and physical symptoms.

Thankfully, the resilience of the human species is insurmountable. Somehow, we move forward and start living again. We adapt. We create new homes. But sometimes, we get stuck – and that’s when a little extra help is needed.

If you have experienced a natural disaster that destroyed your sense of place – or if you know someone who has – here are some resources that can help:

  • The Red Cross offers a free, 24/7 Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990. You can also text “TalkWithUs” to 66746.
  • Call your local mental health department to find out if there are support groups in your area for people experiencing difficulties after natural disasters.
  • Learn about the normal emotional responses to natural disasters. For an excellent summary, see this article by the American Psychological Association.
  • To gauge your level of personal growth after experiencing a trauma such as a natural disaster, take the Post Traumatic Growth Inventory, offered by the American Psychological Association.

If you have experienced a natural disaster or other trauma that impacted your sense of place, how did you cope? Let us know what worked for you – your advice could make a difference in the lives of others in similar circumstances.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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