Father's Day Tornado Leaves Mental Health Impact
by Sarah Czopek, LCPC
As our community of western suburban Chicago navigates the aftermath of the Father’s Day Tornado, it has been weighing on me to speak from the perspective of a mental health professional. It is clear from images of blown apart homes, uprooted trees, and totaled cars that a great deal of physical damage has been dealt to our community. What is unseen is the damage to hearts and minds. We must address the impact that this traumatic event has and will continue to have on the mental health of those affected, and those in helping roles.
Those who were directly impacted by the tornado’s hit are likely to have experienced extreme shock, at the very least. For many individuals, this shock may internalize as trauma and result in any number of unsettling mental health symptoms such as depression, hypervigilance, racing thoughts, insomnia, distressing dreams, flashbacks, panic attacks, derealization (feeling as though the world around you isn’t real) and more. These symptoms may mean that an individual is suffering from Acute Stress Disorder and, if they persist, can eventually lead to the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
As trauma expert Dr. Gabor Mate says, “Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside of you as a result of what happened to you.” There are lengthy, science filled explanations I could go into for what happens in the brain when trauma is integrated, but in short: our bodies and minds hold on to distressing experiences in an effort to keep us safe in the future. This is why in the days, weeks, months, and even years following a traumatic event, individuals may continue to re-experience pieces of the event as if it were still happening, or simply become hypervigilant to other dangers that bear some resemblance to the original event.
Some individuals (including children) are likely to fixate on weather reports, alarms and alerts, emergency plans, and the likelihood of a repeat tornado. Others may become jumpy and startled at strong winds or loud noises, and become anxious when stormy weather appears. People may experience grief and loss, which doesn’t only apply to the physical death of a person but can also apply to the loss of a way of life, possessions, and safety.
So what do we do about that? Clearly one’s brain and body is not likely to forget what it was like to live through an F3. But, it IS possible to process distressing experiences with a trained mental health professional and work towards desensitizing one’s response to memories of the event, regulating one’s emotions, and building an inventory of coping skills to better handle “triggers”, or future reminders, of the experience. In doing so, one can truly find freedom from such high and often debilitating levels of distress.
Research in the psychotherapy field points us toward evidence rooted trauma treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART). To be properly qualified and equipped to use any of the aforementioned trauma focused modalities, clinicians must go through advance post-graduate training, after which they are able to safely guide trauma sufferers through the therapeutic process without causing undue psychological harm or emotional flooding.
Some day-to-day tips and tricks for discussing the tornado with your children can be found here, at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network: https://www.nctsn.org/.../parents_guidelines_for_helping...
In a natural disaster in which first responders, community members, neighbors, and others are called in to assist, these individuals may ultimately experience what is called “secondary trauma”, which is, in a nutshell, the emotional duress that is experienced when one witnesses or hears of the first-hand traumatic experience of another person. Symptoms can vary but are often quite similar to symptoms of those who witnessed or survived the actual event, and are no less serious.
Here are some signs that may indicate that you or a loved one could benefit from mental health support:
Your mind frequently wanders back to or fixating on images and sounds from the night of the tornado or the aftermath.
Difficulty sleeping due to distressing dreams or nightmares, or the feeling that your brain “won’t turn off”
Being easily startled, jumpy, or hyper-aware of your surroundings/noises
Heart palpitations or heart racing
Tightness in chest or difficulty breathing
Distractibility/difficulty concentrating, or feeling absentminded
Overwhelming sense of guilt or shame
Irritability or outbursts of anger
Feeling as if “in a fog”, or “in a dream”
Losing sense of time
In children, you may notice these additional symptoms:
Fear of being left alone
Preoccupation with or intense focus on the event (how do tornado’s work? Where did it go? Is it coming back? what's the weather today? Is there going to be an alarm?
Change in personality (talkative child becomes relatively silent, outgoing child becomes hesitant or shy)
Behavioral changes such as aggression, refusals
Inattention or difficulty focusing
Withdrawing/isolation from peers
While the above is not meant to be an all-inclusive list, it is a broad overview of how individuals in our community may be internally affected. You can help by taking notice of these symptoms in others (or yourself) and pointing individuals toward resources for support.
Another subgroup of families and individuals that bears mentioning are those who have special needs and have been impacted by the tornado. For individuals with autism, changes to routine and structure can result in major challenges such as aggressive outbursts, emotional dysregulation, and inability to complete previously mastered activities of daily living such as feeding, toileting, and dressing. This can present enormous challenges to parents, siblings, teachers, and caregivers working with special needs individuals.
As the tornado has displaced hundreds of families due to structural damage or power outages, it is likely that we will see a second crisis in the form of a “wave” of families in dire need of extra support from the educational system, police officers, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapists, social workers, counselors, and more.
While many clinicians are on a waitlist due to the mental health crisis arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, our community is blessed with an abundance of well-trained therapists in solo practice or group settings - many of whom have immediate openings and can offer consultations or intake appointments right away. If cost is a concern, please note that most insurance policies do cover mental health services, and there are also many clinicians who offer sliding scale rates if there is a financial need. I will personally update and advertise resources related to this crisis as tornado recovery groups and services are formed by clinicians in our community.
We will move forward as a stronger community in the wake of this devastating event, and it is my hope that each and every person affected by this tornado is able to connect with the resources that are available.
GENERAL RESOURCE LIST
NamiDupage.org National Alliance on Mental Illness, Dupage County
https://www.nctsn.org/ National Child Traumatic Stress Network - use keyword search "tornado"
https://www.dupagehealth.org/183/Crisis-Services Dupage Health Department Crisis Services
https://www.dupagehealth.org/.../Screening-Assessment-and... Screening, Assessment, and Support Services (SASS)
Photo Credit: Sarah Czopek