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Addressing trauma

/ 12:20 AM December 01, 2015

IN 2009 when Tropical Storm “Ondoy” (international name: “Ketsana”) struck Luzon and flooded much of Metro Manila, our home in Antipolo was inundated with water, reaching up to seven feet inside.

We were lucky to reach our next-door neighbor’s house and to take shelter for a few days in their second floor and roof deck. When the water subsided, my husband warned me not to venture back to the house because the sight of the mud and debris—and the rank odor—would surely depress me. But even a week afterward, the smell of mud and canal water lingered in the air, magnified by the sight of the soiled walls and the appliances rendered useless.

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The flood did not render us homeless, and friends and relatives rushed with timely aid and expressions of concern. But for about a month after the water subsided, I wandered the house like a zombie, making half-hearted attempts to collect the flotsam and jetsam that we had amassed from over two decades of occupying the house, now reduced to a messy, muddy mess.

It took some time for me to recover my equilibrium, and like some friends, it was hard to resist the temptation to leave our home behind and decamp to other locales, to forget the trauma of the flood. But we had neither way nor means to relocate, and for months afterward, whenever it rained or the sky turned an angry shade of gray, I would feel a rising panic and hopelessness. Only then did I realize that a disaster, even on such a minor scale as the one that my family and I experienced, inflicts more damage than ruined homes or livelihoods. Even if one survives the threat to one’s safety, the sense of unease, the free-floating anxiety and depression, lingers well beyond the immediate recovery period.

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WHAT more for individuals, families and communities beset by disasters beyond human reckoning? How does someone who has lost family members and been dislocated by a tragedy like “Yolanda,” or a major earthquake, return to “normal”?

“Climate change does not just destroy our material and economic wealth. It destroys our assumption that the world is safe, that we can trust nature and our surroundings,” writes

Dr. June Pagaduan-Lopez, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively with survivors of disaster. The deprivations caused by weather disturbances resulting from climate change, she adds, “destroys people’s trust in one another, our sense of community, our culture and our spirituality as well as our sense of the divine order of things—our total wellbeing.”

For many, already fragile emotional states and tenuous grips on reality can be distorted and worsened when coupled with loss of life and the lingering insecurity that follows a natural or manmade disaster. In Tacloban City and environs, for instance, the mentally ill were abandoned and left to fend for themselves by their families already hard put to cope with the aftermath of disaster. And this is not counting those brought beyond the brink of sanity by a disaster, or those coping with psychological “issues” of which they are rarely aware or can barely recognize, but which still disturb their sense of equanimity and sense of security.

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FOR the past 14 years, writes Pagaduan-Lopez, an organization of volunteers called “Balik Kalipay” (Return to Happiness) and a coalition of psychosocial NGOs called Citizens’ Network for Psychosocial Response have been working together in the war-torn communities of Mindanao, and in the aftermath of natural calamities brought on by Tropical Storms Ondoy and “Sendong” and Typhoons “Milenyo/Reming,” “Frank,” “Pablo” and “Habagat,” the Bohol earthquake, the Zamboanga siege, and then Yolanda.

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In the course of their work, Pagaduan-Lopez says, they have come to realize more and more “the urgency of the need to address the neglect of mental health and psychosocial services during disasters,” both natural and manmade.

While government agencies and private organizations like the Red Cross and UN bodies rightfully rush to address the dire need for food, water, medical care and shelter in the immediate aftermath of an emergency, other needs, like the emotional stability and sense of security of the populace, are often forgotten or addressed peremptorily. These are deemed “luxuries,” or at least not as urgent as survival needs, that can be set aside in the meantime and attended to “later,” when things “return to normal.”

But as we have come to realize, the “new normal” in the wake of climate change has become a seemingly endless cycle of calamities and tragedies, which must be anticipated and prepared for, with mindsets and environments retrofitted to better respond to weather and other earthly challenges.

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STILL, part of the new preparedness entails broadening the understanding of ordinary people—as well as of governments, officials, aid workers and responders—of the wide reach and deep impact that disasters can wreak on the individual psyche and the communal spirit.

Referring to the conference on climate change ongoing in Paris, Pagaduan-Lopez issues a call “to send this message to people you know attending the conference and [who] can contribute to making people especially policymakers aware of the crucial importance of addressing not only the material but also the psychosocial wellbeing [of victims] in responding to the impact of climate change.”

Shell-shocked and traumatized people can barely keep their spirits up, much less gather the will and the energy to reach out to others and begin the process of recovery. Without recognizing the psychological roots of loss and the spiritual emptiness that follows despair, nations would have a hard time convincing its traumatized citizens to pick up the pieces and begin anew. The world needs to get behind this initiative right now.

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