With documented increases in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression cases in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, the longstanding need for enhanced mental health services in The Bahamas becomes more urgent — most especially given the potential risks associated with untreated depression, including addiction and suicide.
Dr. Gregory Swann, a clinical psychologist with over 25 years of experience in United States law enforcement agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), recently reported a “high rise” in depression and PTSD in government employees assessed on Grand Bahama.
Swann is part of a team of professionals assessing storm victims in the island’s public sector. Their findings are important for the sector due to the important role affected public officers play in the functioning of essential services.
Noting the current trend, it is reasonable to expect that as assessments by public and private mental healthcare teams continue for those in the general public on Grand Bahama and Abaco, cases of PTSD and depression would be statistically significant.
This matters because untreated PTSD and depression can cause marked changes in a person’s behavior and ability to function in everyday life, having negative impacts on family life, occupations and social interactions.
Instances of spousal and child abuse, substance abuse, acts of aggression, social withdrawal and suicide can all be features of these conditions if left without proper intervention.
In short, a natural disaster such as Dorian can be followed by a mental health disaster if those suffering from PTSD and depression do not get the care and treatment they need.
The focus on building houses and structures that are hurricane-resilient must not dwarf the necessary focus on building resilient people to occupy those structures, as the country’s overall resilience is diminished when the latter’s recovery lags well behind that of the former.
Often left out of the discussion on mental health evaluations are children.
While youngsters would have experienced all the trauma suffered by that of their parents and adult relatives, they can be less able to cope.
A 2014 PTSD study published in the Journal of International Social Work found that in over 800 children observed following Hurricane Katrina in 2015, and Chile’s major earthquake and tsunami in 2010, over 30 percent exhibited PTSD symptoms that warranted medical evaluation.
A long-term PTSD study by Georgia State University found that of 400 children directly impacted by Katrina, 25 percent suffered and ultimately recovered from PTSD by the end of the two-year study while four percent suffered from chronic PTSD at the end of the study.
The Katrina study is particularly relevant given key similarities between events in that 2005 hurricane and Dorian — massive flooding, hundreds trapped in ceilings, citizen rescues, scores of drowning deaths and families experiencing abrupt separation in the midst of post-disaster evacuations.
Children on Abaco and Grand Bahama have had to be separated from parents to attend school on New Providence or were otherwise separated from family members who evacuated to different locations, a painful and no doubt frightening circumstance against the backdrop of losing loved ones and homes.
While parents might be able to reason and accept that the difficult separation is necessary for now, the same can be much harder for children.
It is a key reason parents and teachers on Grand Bahama agitated for the re-opening of undamaged public schools on Grand Bahama so as to help families reunite and otherwise return residents to some relative sense of normalcy.
The presence of guidance counselors at schools provides students with access to services that can address their emotional needs and help them to cope with their losses and fears that are no less significant because of their age.
It is our hope that the impact of Dorian will not only trigger a re-prioritizing of mental health at both the legislative and public administration level, but spur a newer level of sensitization about the importance of mental health to the overall development of the country moving forward.