January 24, 2022

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The Emotional and Mental Health Damages from Natural Disasters and Climate Change

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A respected insurance claims expert challenged me to comment about the emotional trauma and problems faced by the public with repeat natural catastrophes. His remarkable challenge coined a new phrase, “warmageddon:”

With climate changing to weirder weather, hurricanes moving northward, winds and fuels endangering communities, you’d think the bloggers would write about the need for a new awareness and skill set by consumer lawyers to help the public deal with the consequences of warmageddon.

The problems with climate change causing a greater number of disasters, with greater frequency and severity are far too long for one blog post. I am going to focus on one public problem following a disaster in this post—emotional recovery. All of us in the insurance claims business need better bedside manners. It is important to the people we serve and to the greater public we are licensed to help.

In large scale disasters, policyholders and the community are traumatized. In, Assisting Individuals and Communities After Natural Disasters and Community Traumas,1 experts in disaster trauma note:

Disasters deserve specific attention because they differ from other types of trauma in several important ways. First, they are collective in nature—large numbers of individuals are simultaneously affected. In some ways, this is an asset. Individuals affected by disaster sometimes receive worldwide attention. Depending on the size and scope of the event, support and resources often are mobilized that would not be available following an individual trauma. The collective nature also can be a problem, however, as social comparison can occur in cases in which the individual needs of one affected individual are not seen as significant as the needs of another. Another problem could be that the resources that initially are available are insufficient for the presenting problems or these resources do not remain in place long enough.

A second difference between disasters and other traumas is that they affect infrastructure as well as mental health. After major events, communication, housing, and transportation needs may interfere with the ability to get assistance. Even after the immediate search and rescue operations are over and community infrastructure is back in place, individuals may be left homeless or jobless and may be more focused on immediate needs, such as on rebuilding their home or community, than on their own mental health.

I agree, and I have written about this major post-disaster issue before. The Emotional Toll of Hurricanes recalled a story about one person’s emotional health issues following a disaster:

Brian Malone is a dear friend and a Bahamian whose immediate family is about to have a horrific experience caused by Hurricane Dorian. Brian’s parents and relatives live in Hope Town on the Abaco Islands which is part of the Bahamas. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are terrible freaks of nature, but living through 24 hours of it will undoubtedly make an impact on the psyche of his relatives in harm’s way of Dorian.

Brian told me the story of his Bahamian cousin who survived Category 5 Hurricane Floyd. His cousin obviously was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and was convinced that large rats were going to eat everybody. He thought that the plague was going to come up from the ground and kill them all. This irrational belief is not laughable because each person is uniquely impacted and carry the disaster with them as we noted in stories above.

In my book, Pay Up! Preventing A Disaster With Your Own Insurance Company, I told the story of the hardships facing seniors who had paid off their house loan but were faced with rebuilding and hoping their insurance company will come through for them:

Coming back from this type of loss is not easy. Ann and Ray, though past retirement age, were still working. Losing your home and everything else always takes a heavy toll. A home is your castle, and at that age starting from scratch can be daunting, if not impossible.

In the days after the storm, Ray often visited the place where their house had stood. There was nothing left behind but a concrete slab marking the spot like a tombstone. At their age, for most people, this kind of loss is life altering without adequate insurance coverage. The emotional toll of such an ordeal cannot be overstated.

The Atlantic had an excellent article about the trauma caused by repetitive fires in, A Mental Health Crisis Is Burning Across The American West: Each Fire Season Can Compound The Trauma of The One Before It. This excellent article from an excellent investigative journal noted:

Wildfires tend to leave a common signature—the black earth and white ash, the jagged trees and bleak chimneys. Americans have come to know these well. But the physical ruin is only a part of the aftermath.

According to Patricia Watson, a psychologist at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, 10 to 30 percent of wildfire survivors develop diagnosable mental-health conditions, including PTSD and depression. Another 50 percent may suffer from serious subclinical effects that fade with time. Studies have found that substance abuse and domestic violence rise after natural disasters. And while most fire survivors make a full recovery, many require formal treatment.

In more than 50 interviews over the past two years, I’ve heard from survivors, researchers, clinicians, and government officials about the ways in which this long-lasting psychological damage can transform lives. Many survivors described feeling fragile and less capable of managing stress for years after a fire. Some recalled looking for incinerated possessions and breaking down when they realized they would never find them. One man recounted taking his granddaughter to see the 2018 Mary Poppins movie—about a family on the brink of eviction—and crying through much of its two-hour running time. That was more than three years after he lost his home.

When a whole neighborhood or town feels these effects at the same time, the result is what one psychologist and fire survivor calls ‘community-wide trauma.’ ‘It’s hard not to have a little PTSD,’ says Jessyca Lytle, whose home burned down in the Valley Fire. ‘A lot of people just see it as ‘Well, it’s the new normal. I’ve just got to learn how to deal with it.’

The trauma is sustained and amplified by a distinctive characteristic of California’s wildfires: They recur, often in quick succession. A number of the survivors I spoke with described feeling ‘haunted’ and ‘disturbed’ by subsequent fires. As irrational as they knew it was, they felt as though the fires were stalking them.

Our policyholder clients who have gone through a large-scale natural disaster are suffering again from what they read and see in our media from the next disaster. We need to appreciate and have compassion for what their emotional trauma is rather than looking at people as dollar signs on how much they can be worth. We need to listen, and they need hope.

If you are one of those who post dollar signs on social media about how financially successful you are about to become from other people’s grief or start writing on social media about “ching ching” when a disaster happens, stop. You are the problem. If you write that insurance companies are evil and that all of them will underpay unless hired by you, YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. This is obviously a problem if you look at many restoration insurance conventions filled with—”let us teach you how to make money as much money as you can from somebody else’s financial disaster.” If this is your message, you are the problem.

If you are dedicated to professionally helping people, bettering yourself, and assisting those in need with compassion and letting the dollars come from the fruit of your labor rather than looking to make a killing, chances are you are the type of professional reading this blog. Policyholders and the public should know that there are many dedicated people ready to help and want to do so in a compassionate manner.

For all of us who are in this claims business because we want to help people, we need to study and learn how to help our clients through the often non-financial aspect of emotional recovery while acting in our professional capacity.

The Thought For The Day is my quote and the Video from a blog I wrote eleven years ago, Tennessee Floods and the Emotion of Disaster, where I stated:

Traveling from one disaster to another and talking with those involved and living through the impact is difficult. Most people need reassurance that others know, understand and care. Others are understandably frustrated and angry with the entire situation. When talking with seasoned catastrophe adjusters, virtually all have stories of just staying, sitting and holding hands with our brothers and sisters as they sob and then get to the point of being able to function. All victims eventually want to know where they stand and what they can do to recover.

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1 Watson, Patricia,Hamblen, Jessica Gold, Steven N. (Ed). (2017). Assisting Individuals and Communities After Natural Disasters and Community Traumas. APA handbook of trauma psychology: Foundations in knowledge, Vol. 1, (pp. 87-97). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, xxii, 624 pp.

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