A wave of mental health concerns on the rise
Walk through a High River community and you will see the tattered houses that at first glance appear unaffected, but are dark at dinner time. Restoration trucks sit on almost every corner. Steel blue fences highlight the city centre, and surround the many still-deserted buildings.
“It’s emotional to be at home and remember everything that happened here,” High River resident Martha Schroeder-Klassen says. “Going into town, we’re seeing homes and buildings being ripped down because they’re damaged beyond repair.”
“I definitely cry every day. This flood changed who we are.”
Mental health effects
“The flood may have pushed people over the edge,” says Kim Busch, a counselor at the Calgary Counseling Centre. “Anxieties went up and depressions worsened; it exacerbated the problems.”
Mental health problems are often more prevalent after the initial shock of a natural disaster.
According to Phalia Anderen, counseling manager at The Calgary Counseling Centre, “We are reaching that time where more of the dust is settling. Now it’s really starting to sink in what they have actually been through and what they have ahead of them.”
Photo by Drew Henn
Living in a constant state of rebuilding, seeing the condemned buildings, the bridge reconstruction, and the streets speckled with the houses of relocated families, one can understand why anxiety and stress levels might remain inflated for High River residents.
Various studies show that mental health services are generally in place for those caught in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. However, prolonged issues will linger long after many of these services fade away.
“It’s kind of like a death,” Busch says. “People will rally around the funeral, but two weeks later the person is left not knowing what to do.”
History of mental health after a disaster
Research on the after-effects of natural disasters notes that the mental health issues for most victims were often psychological, ranging from mild stress to significant signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Domestic violence and drug abuse, often linked to the struggles of mental health, tend to increase as well. These issues not only occur abruptly, but they can remain long after the disaster has come and gone.
After a natural disaster occurs, research tells us that help is usually immediately attainable due to a wave of volunteers and a rise in community cohesion. This is called the “honeymoon” phase. However after that, ranging from roughly six months to three years, a period of disillusionment and reconstruction sets in. This phase sees help and media coverage dwindle and, as such, services become sparse—all this despite the fact that many victims still struggle with the mental health effects of the disaster.
According to a 2005 study by Juan José Lopez-Idor and others on the link between mental health and disasters, roughly 25 per cent of people affected by a natural disaster will experience prolonged psychological affects. Multiple surveys conducted on the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood in West Virginia found that 44 per cent of victims still experienced PTSD symptoms up to two years after the disaster.
Photo by Drew HennWhile knowing and preparing for specific mental health illnesses may be feasible, providing services that help resolve these illnesses could prove to be difficult.
Two people who have experienced similar traumatic experiences may require very different treatments. One 2011 study based on the flood of a small town in England noted that depressed individuals will avoid social structure and will require more subjective, individual-based psychological help. Conversely, those victims experiencing a maintained high level of anxiety frequently sought social company for reassurance on their thoughts and feelings.
The evidence listed is not unbeknownst to Alberta officials. Following the flood, the government published an online pamphlet that offered advice for those dealing with the aftermath. The pamphlet listed “warning signs” that reflect the experiences of others who have lived through a disaster:
• Having flashbacks to the event.
• Avoiding people or activities you usually enjoy.
• Using alcohol or drugs more.
The difficulties of treatment
One issue that may make personal recovery efforts difficult is
the possibility that diagnosed symptoms were not necessarily flood related.
Anderen notes that “people may not initially come in for counseling saying that their primary focus is dealing with flood related issues, but as we are getting to know them they realize that a lot of their stress has come as a result of what they have just been through.”
Busch says many people who suffer from the associated mental health effects of a natural disaster require long-term support. She says that because most others in similar situations are able to cope with the struggles, it creates a stigma.
“People try and minimize symptoms,” Busch says. “They say ‘oh, you’ll get over that. Don’t worry about it.’ But these people may actually need help.
“It’s just like after a car accident, many people will re-live the experience for days or weeks, but it fades, however for people with PTSD, it doesn’t fade.”
Anderen says, “about six to eight weeks after an event is when you start to see some of the affects, but in her experience it’s usually about four to six months later and beyond.”
In fact, the Calgary Counseling Centre has seen consistent growth since June. In September, roughly three months after the flood, they saw a 14.5 per cent increase in traffic.
Photo by Drew Henn
Jim Hedrick was one of many volunteers who helped with flood efforts in Calgary and High River. A ‘safety guy’ by trade, he zipped into his plastic suit, put on his respirator, taped his gloves onto his hands and headed to some of the areas that got hit the hardest. He says residents were extremely overwhelmed.
“One house I went to, I had to send the wife away because she was going crazy. She was actually taking dishes out of the cupboards and cleaning the cupboards upstairs because she didn’t know what to do.
“We started with about six of us in one of the houses and by the next day there was about 30 or 40 people in there. Some people never talked to anyone, never asked for anything, never gave their names, they just did it for the sake of doing it.”
Maintaining a sense of community seems to be important for some High River residents. Susan Firkola was one of the lucky residents of High River who suffered no damages from the flood, but she felt it was important to give back and support her community.
Firkola decided to fundraise, but not for money. She gathered donations for tickets to Calaway Park, for which she managed to get 60 tickets for High River youth. But she didn’t realize all the technicalities that came with helping out.
After being informed she’d need to get waiver forms and police-checked chaperones, with a budget of zero dollars, Firkola realized she was in way over her head.
“As if by a miracle, Big Brothers Big Sisters heard what I was trying to do and offered to help. Thanks to them, we managed to send 280 children to spend a day at Calaway Park.”
Home for the holidays
Aside from the community efforts to rebuild the town, people continue to experience the repercussions of June’s flood. With the approaching holiday season, some residents’ stress levels are starting to increase.
According to Anderen, “the families that have lost their homes and have lost their jobs and their livelihoods are just not being able to have their objects and their traditions and those types of things. It’s really going to bring to attention what they have just been through.”
Though times seem troubling, there are a few dedicated people in High River determined to make the holidays seem a little bit brighter.
After her success with the Calaway Park trips for High River’s youth, Firkola decided to co-run Coat High River with Love, an organization that collects donated winter coats to give to those who lost theirs in the flood.
“The community’s response has been fantastic,” Firkola says. “From donations of clothes and money to a building to sort and house them, everyone has been very supportive.”
Another person who wants to raise the town’s holiday spirits is Andrea Townshend, general manager of High River’s Ramada hotel.
Photo by Drew Henn
A resident of Cayley, 15 minutes south of High River, Townshend was spared the destruction of the flooding, but she waited anxiously every day for news of her friends in High River.
“Being here since the beginning and seeing our town, our communities, our friends, families and coworkers struggle through such a traumatic experience, I knew High River needed some positive energy,” Townshend says.
Townshend and Sharmane Waddy, general manager of High River’s Super 8 Motel, developed Flood High River with Lights to make their town’s Christmas a little brighter. Several other businesses including CO-OP, Western Financial and Royal Bank of Canada—to name only a few—have jumped on board.
Townshend says, “we are excited to send a ‘beacon’ to the outside world that High River is a strong, vibrant community and that we have the will to survive and thrive.”
What is to come
Organizations in Calgary are working to ensure that all resources necessary are being provided to High River. The Calgary Counseling Centre is currently working with Alberta Health Services and the province of Alberta to set up a satellite office in High River set to kick off somewhere between December and the beginning of the new year.
Anderen says, “it will make opportunities for people to seek counseling, participate in workshops and to have that support system.”
From a financial standpoint, The Calgary Foundation is one of the more publicized organizations offering assistance to flood affected areas and people. A community organization, The Calgary Foundation provides grants to Calgary’s entire charitable sector and has been quite busy since the flood hit in June.
Two of their programs in particular loom large in the renewal of the town. The Increase Demand Program “looks at the existing services provided by qualified donators, and the increased demand of the services they are seeing as a result of the flood,” says Lauren Simms of The Calgary Foundation.
The program will help support expanded versions of existing community efforts. Simms says that The Calgary Foundation anticipates seeing the most need in general communities, senior citizens, domestic violence, aboriginal services, education, addictions, emergency preparedness for the future and animal welfare.
The New Initiatives Program, on the other hand, is a collection of new programs that have a focus of restoring community spirit. Simms says this can include anything from building community-gathering spaces that might not be covered by insurance, such as playgrounds and community gardens, to pathway infrastructure or “any sort of community hub that isn’t on the radar of the province.”
New Initiatives also focuses on enhancing community resilience. This includes things like training sessions for how organizations can be better prepared for future floods and providing workshops that “bring to light some of those long-term issues associated with mental health that we might see following events such as the floods,” Simms says.
Between grants and donations, the province of Alberta has allocated $50 million to long-term community needs, $9.2 million of which is being specifically delegated to 20 organizations focused on mental health including:
• The Calgary Counseling Centre
• The Calgary Distress Center
• The Red Cross’s High River initiatives
• Family and Community Support Services in High River
• Alberta-wide recovery centers
The Calgary Foundation’s flood fund is continuing to grow. With new developing deadlines, they continue to accept donations and consider where flood relief money needs to be allocated.
According to Simms, the Foundation is going to be releasing grants in December and around March. They haven’t yet announced another deadline but if the fund continues to grow, that could be something that they offer.
Currently they have another grant application deadline of Jan. 31, 2014, on their website for registered charities.
Outside of what the city is doing for High River, handfuls of programs are working above and beyond to help their deserving residents.
The Parent Link Centere is an excellent local example of this. They plan to continue to offer resources to parents and families for as long as necessary.
Michelle Kessell works with the centre in High River, a not-for-profit organization that strives to connect families with the resources they need for surviving the floods and the aftermath; whether it be signs and symptoms of poor mental health to look for in High River youth, coping skills for kids and parents, or how to get more help if necessary.
The centre plans on continuing to offer their disaster recovery Triple P Positive Parenting program, and offering a safe place to fall for many.
Kessell says that she “has seen a real sense of community and has seen a lot of organizations come together and use their resources to help each other out.
“We basically plan to stick with our distinct plan which is to keep the doors open to parents to discuss any issues that they might have with their families.
“Programs for kids and parents are so important in a time like this because it brings together the community. It’s an opportunity for people who haven’t seen their neighbors to come together, to talk about what’s happened, to grieve together, to support each other and to move forward together,” Kessell concludes.
That community spirit will be essential for individuals in the town who have experienced great loss. Martha Schroeder-Klassen’s memories, family heirlooms and scrapbooks defined who she was. She stored these valuables in the basement of her riverside home, and as a result the flood stole a lifetime of possessions. It stole a part of her.
Klassen says it’s important for residents to remember they’re not alone—that there are others who are feeling the way they do. She adds attending community events is crucial for bringing peace back in one’s life.
“A bit of chit chat restores the soul.”