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Two Years After Sandy: Addressing the Emotional Needs of Survivors

Two years after Superstorm Sandy hit New York, many individuals, families and communities have recovered, but others are still struggling. The damage wrought by Sandy disrupted thousands of lives and brought communities together in a show of strength, support and resilience.
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Co-authored with Christian Burgess, Director, National Disaster Distress Helpline

2014-10-21-60secpsa1.jpgAs the most significant storm of the 2012 hurricane and tropical storm season and the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history after Katrina, Superstorm Sandy made landfall along the New York and New Jersey coastlines on Monday, October 29, 2012. Two years later, while many individuals, families and communities have recovered, others are still struggling. The damage wrought by Sandy disrupted thousands of lives and brought communities together in a show of strength, support and resilience.

No matter where any one person may be on the path of recovery in the months and years after Sandy, for those survivors that were impacted by the storm -- including first responders, rescue and recovery workers and loved ones of victims -- the anniversary can bring back painful memories as well as offer a chance for reflection and further growth.

These dualities -- recovery and regression, strength and vulnerability -- are common hallmarks of any painful or traumatic life experience, and are challenging not only for survivors but for loved ones and service providers as well, generating confusing thoughts such as:

"Is it OK for me to ask about their experience during the disaster -- how soon is too soon?"

"It's been two years [or five years, or ten years...] and I've seen so many other survivors 'move on' from their experience. I'm concerned, because he still seems to be struggling. What can I do?"

"Some survivors seem to be saying 'I want to be left alone' during the disaster anniversary, while others seem to need for me to ask how they're doing and to give them attention. I don't know how much is too much in either direction..."

Here are five helpful things to know about helping survivors during disaster anniversaries:

1. No one experiences the same disaster in the same way.
Pre-disaster levels of functioning, a person's particular experience during the disaster (particularly in regards to the extent of their exposure to traumatic scenes of devastation, loss and suffering), and post-disaster access to care and support all influence how people and communities as a whole recover. There is no 'one way' to heal from a disaster, nor is there any specific timetable for emotional recovery. Even within the same household affected by the same disaster, individual reactions can be vastly different person-to-person. Avoid making assumptions about recovery and be sure to look at individual needs, even within the same group of survivors.

2. Meet survivors "where they are."
Express empathy for whatever emotions a survivor is experiencing leading up to and on the disaster anniversary, demonstrate patience, and avoid pressuring someone to be where you think they should be in their recovery versus how they say they are doing (including pressuring someone who says they are 'okay' to be more mournful or demonstrate stronger emotions during the anniversary).

3. Consider the unique needs of children and teens.
Children and teens' reactions to disasters are influenced by their natural developmental stages and during disaster anniversaries may express themselves differently than adults. Invite kids to share what's on their mind during anniversaries, invite them to participate in (or help organize) commemorative events, and look out for warning signs of distress that may indicate she or he is struggling.

4. Offer encouragement, acknowledge growth.
For those survivors who have continued to struggle during the long term recovery following disasters and who therefore may feel 'left behind' - emotions that can feel magnified during anniversary events because of the understandable focus such events have on progress - offer empathy and support, but also give them reminders that you are there to support them no matter what they're feeling, and try to help them see what progress they have made. Work to connect them with survivors from other disasters for peer support and sharing of resources.

5. Be sensitive to emotional struggles that may signify deeper behavioral health concerns like depression, anxiety or substance abuse
If someone you care for isolates themselves, demonstrates erratic or significant changes in behavior leading up to/on a disaster anniversary, seems to have trouble concentrating or performing daily tasks (including at work or school) or says or does anything that may indicate threats to themselves or others-seek help. Speak to a healthcare provider, mental health professional, or contact the Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990 or text "TalkWithUs" to 66746) for 24/7 support.

While the anniversaries of major disasters like Superstorm Sandy will always be headline news, remember that every day is a disaster anniversary for someone. For those survivors of disaster who are our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, clients, and patients, it can be helpful to understand these common emotional reactions leading up to and on anniversary dates. Some people will need emotional space and solitude, others close contact and a need to participate in anniversary events, and still others may want to try and avoid anniversary reminders altogether by going on a vacation or simply treating it as 'another day'. No matter what the anniversary of Sandy or other disasters means to your loved ones, let them know the most important thing they can hear during that day or any day: They're not alone, and you're there for them no matter what.

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Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.