In the area of mental health there are several phases people go through during and after a disaster. There's the heroic stage, where average people do extraordinary things in the face of tragedy. Then there's the honeymoon period but then disillusionment sets in and it may take months or even years for people to come to terms with what they experienced. Dr. Robert Ursano chairs the Department of Psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Ursano was in Houston to lecture at the Baylor College of Medicine. He says although some hurricane victims were exposed to life threat, most are dealing with extreme losses.
"So we frequently think about the responses of grief and bereavement as being a primary concern. For those who worked with these individuals, it may have stimulated for them both a reconsideration of their life, what's important and valuable as well as reminders about their own grief and losses and they will be processing those for days, weeks and months up ahead as they recall their experiences and think about how it affected them."
It can take six months for things like post-traumatic stress disorder to show up in people who have experienced disasters. Dr. Catherine Troisi is with the City of Houston's Health Department. She says the city received money from the Department of Labor to hire several hurricane evacuees. These individuals are trained to look for signs of mental and behavioral health problems among the evacuee population.
"The idea is to identify problems early on so they won't progress to full-blown acute mental health episodes. And one of the reasons besides the obvious thing that we want to help people, is the concern about an overload on our existing system. And we have already been seeing an increase in emergency room admissions because of mental health issues and we want to prevent that."
The workers are going out to apartment complexes, churches and schools to touch base with the evacuees, do a sort of mental health triage and then refer them to services.
"Many of these evacuees have been through horrific experiences and we're particularly targeting people who were in the convention center or the Superdome because of what they went through."
Currently the city's efforts focus on victims of Hurricane Katrina. But Dr. Ursano says there are interesting things to research and learn from what Houstonians experienced during Hurricane Rita.
"The questions of Rita raise a complex questions of second exposures and the concern and fear about second exposures. How risk of second exposure can lead people to do things they shouldn't do or to more actively do things they should do and that distinction is very important."
Ursano says traumatic events can lead to behavior changes which can occur in people with no previous disposition to mental health issues. He says anyone who thinks they may be experiencing stress or trauma as a result of the hurricanes should contact a mental health professional or their physician. Laurie Johnson Houston Public Radio News.