In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, life has taken on a new norm for thousands of people, with having to move into the homes of family and friends, and in many instances seek refuge in a shelter “living” with strangers, while they work to rebuild their lives. This could result in big issues as one of the problems with any close quarters environment is that people need their space. As people seek to co-exist in trying times, medical professionals urge sensitivity and the exercise of more patience than usual, as everyone – uprooted and displaced people as well as their hosts, will be affected by the new normalcy.
Hurricane Dorian devastated Abaco and Grand Bahama, and in its wake, thousands of people were uprooted, due to the trauma they experienced, specific to the storm itself – whether they were fighting for their lives, lost family members and friends, or witnessed death and horrific things as they fought for their own lives. In the still early days of the aftermath, clinical psychologist Rochelle Basden says that as people adjust to this new normal, that others should be a little more sensitive to the affected and exercise more patience than usual.
“They can struggle in their up-rootedness with all they’ve lost and trying to process what they’ve gone through – and this ‘closeness’ having to live with people, which is not what they’ve been accustomed to, has become their new norm, so-to-speak. That person is out of their normal environment – out of their home, and in some other location – whether that be in a person’s house or a shelter, so they’re displaced. They’re uprooted. They’ve lost their sense of belonging. Nothing makes sense. It’s not what they’re accustomed to. They can’t predict from one moment to the next what their life’s going to be like, so they’re feeling powerless and detached.”
The psychologist urges hosts to be more sensitive than usual and to exercise more patience than usual. But to also look into themselves and to have that conversation to determine whether they are the best person to handle hosting family or friends or if they have the best situation to be able to do so.
“Because if you are already stretched, and your resources – and I don’t just mean financially – maybe it’s just physically or emotionally, that you may not be in a position. You may want to, but maybe this will tax you on your ability to cope, and so that may be the first decision. You have to also discuss it with your family members. Not everybody may have had that luxury, because it just might have happened so quickly, and this person needed somewhere to be and you rose to the occasion, and so now you need somebody to come in and help you to work through whatever those issues are as they arise, remembering that it should not be a permanent arrangement. It’s temporary, and you’re helping that person to get to the next stage in their life where they’re then in a better position to help themselves. And you’re not alone, because this is of national proportion. This did not affect one family. This did not affect one or two people. This affected at least two major islands and several smaller cays. So, you’re not expected to do it alone.”
According to the psychologist, there are also ramifications for hosts that have taken in family members or friends as they could begin to feel crowded out and guilt for what they’re feeling or thinking at the same time – like they’ve had enough, but what should they do? They don’t want to put people out on the street or tell them they’re at their max and suggest they look elsewhere for help. She said hosts can also feel guilt by not knowing whether what they were saying or doing is the right thing.
“Healthcare providers have the same challenge. ‘Did I say the right thing?’ And sometimes with all your best intentions, it may not be the right thing in that moment for that person. Then there’s the drain, or the extra demands that’s placed on finances and just the way that the home would normally run.”
Basden acknowledges the social disruption, the psychological needs of both sides of the equation – the displaced person as well as the people who are accommodating, as well as problems with cohesiveness.
“That saying, ‘if you want to know me come live with me’, that kind of thing, so maybe you thought you knew this person but you didn’t know this person like that – you never shared a space, that close intimate living quarters, so things flare up,” she said.
Basden, who is the director of psychology at Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre, said the close quarter living in shelters is a little more extreme due to the lack of privacy or diminished privacy for the most part, and being amongst people they would have not have shared that close of a space within the past. There’s also a situation of overcrowding.
“While they may try to do the best that they can do to make sure that people’s human rights and dignity are being respected, it’s still not what you would have been accustomed to, so, you’re struggling with all that you just lost, and all that you just went through, and now this new norm so-to-speak.”
What to do
The healthcare provider said there are things that people can attempt to do as an individual or family to try to live cohesively when that feeling of being crowded out starts to take root.
“It begins with a conversation. Somebody has to initiate the conversation to talk about how to proceed with it. If they feel they need some external help – and it doesn’t have to be a mental health professional as such – it may be a church person or some other supportive person in their circle who maybe could help to navigate and facilitate that conversation a little better. But if they think it warrants professional help, ask for it.”
She said with the many people on the ground right now working to restore and rebuild the ravaged communities, now is the time to ask for that help.
“We have a lot of people on the ground – not just people who have been living and working here all this while, but we have a lot of international groups on the ground, with various qualifications and skills, and are basically falling all over each other to help, and so this is the time to ask for that help – whether that be social, psychological, financial.”
Basden said the up-rootedness isn’t experienced by everyone in the same way.
“Some people might appear to be fine, but you don’t know what their internal struggle is. Others may work overtime to overcompensate to make it appear that all is well and they’re good and they can handle it, and then sometimes that breaks down after a while. While others are much more in touch from the get-go with what it is that they’re experiencing, so they’re going through whatever they’re going through and then they’re in somebody’s home; those who aren’t in shelters.”
She said people need to give themselves a break.
“I’ve seen a lot of people who just want to keep going and don’t want to take that moment. They feel guilty about not going to work, or not showing up somewhere where they feel they need to be. But they need to take a moment and give themselves some downtime to really absorb what has happened, and really figure out what is it that they’re able to do now to process the loss, to deal with the emotional trauma.”
Three weeks after the devastating storm wreaked havoc on the two islands, Basden said in the weeks ahead PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) could be manifested in survivors and that people should be vigilant of people experiencing symptoms like flashbacks; avoidance of people, places and things that remind them of what they just went through; and hyper arousal that could include sleeping difficulties. She said the large majority of people go on to have a normal adjustment after going through traumatic events, but that there are people who experience PTSD.
“PTSD can manifest any time after four to six weeks, anything earlier than that would just be signs of acute stress. You don’t want to pathologize what people are going through in the early days.”