After the flood waters retreat, the mental scars remain
We must ensure that those afflicted by floods get support, help and compassion
“As a nation, as well as giving practical and concrete help, we need also to reach out to support the families who have experienced flooding.” Burgess Park in Athlone town under water. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The floods that are sweeping Ireland are not only damaging property and farmland, they are also devastating people psychologically.
The flooding of one’s home is a particularly stressful event. Our home is invested with our dreams and our sense of security and to see it damaged or destroyed is a heart-breaking loss. This stress can take an enormous toll on a person’s mental health and the effects can extend long after the waters have subsided.
For example, after experiencing flooding, many people report increased anxiety, broken sleep and may become worried that every rain shower will mean the start of returned floods. In addition, people are dealing with grief over the loss of prized possessions and the security of their home.
The current floods in Ireland have been particularly stressful. Many people are engaged in an extended and exhausting period of fighting to defend their home or anticipating even higher water rises or the prospect of long delays to clean-up in already flooded homes.
Sense of foreboding
Here are some tips for dealing with the psychological stress of flooding:
1 Acknowledge and accept how you feel. Give yourself permission to feel upset and devastated and recognise this as normal. You may be in a current phase of frenetic action to deal with the crises (eg defending your home and/ or cleaning up) and this is appropriate at the moment. Accept that your upset feelings may follow later and be self-compassionate rather than repressing or criticising your feelings.
2 Reach out for support. Talk about your feelings to others, particularly your nearest and dearest, and try to support and listen to one another. Realise also that you are not alone and talk to others who have been affected by the floods. Community support can be very helpful.
3 Take constructive action. This means it is important to do something positive to deal with the stressful event you are faced with. In the immediate aftermath, this means doing the clean-up. In the medium term, try to get back to normal life as soon as possible. In the longer term, it might mean lobbying for flood defences or seeking other practical help.
4 Focus on self-care. Don’t neglect the important things such as eating and sleeping well, engaging in relaxation or taking a break from the clean-up (perhaps getting others to help).
5 Attend to your mental health. If you notice that you are not sleeping and are experiencing excessive worry or stress or if you are feeling down or depressed, do seek professional support through your primary care or mental health professionals.
Forgotten and isolated
In the many personal accounts of the flooding in the media, many of the people have reported one of the worst things as feeling forgotten and isolated and left to cope alone.
What has mattered has been the services and local communities reaching out to support them. In many ways, this is why the symbolic gesture of politicians visiting flood victims has mattered (as well as giving commitments of practical support).
As a wider society, we should also reach out to support and contribute to families and individuals.
Our changing climate is a collective problem that we all need to work together to manage. Realising that we are all in this predicament together and working together to deal with it – rather than engaging in simple blame games – is the best strategy to improve our collective mental health.
Dr John Sharry is a psychotherapist and mental health expert. solutiontalk.ie