We recently had a chance to talk with Sue Ei, who is a psychologist with the Bloomsburg Psychological Center (BPC). We talked about their Flood Support Group and how she feels the community is doing after the Flood of 2011.
1. Tell us a little bit about the Flood Support Group. Obviously the devastation was tremendous with a multitude of people affected, but were there other factors that made your group decide to start it?
Well, I’ll start by giving credit to CMSU (Columbia, Montour, Snyder and Union Counties of Central Pennsylvania, which is a cooperative arrangement between the four counties to provide mental health, mental retardation and drug & alcohol services). They came up with the idea and asked for help. Dorothy Ashman asked the staff at Bloomsburg Psychological Center (BPC) for volunteers and agreed to donate a space at the BPC Annex office where people could gather. Several of us at BPC were immediately interested in volunteering to facilitate the group, some because of our own involvement with the flood, and others out of concern for our community. Many of our clients have been directly impacted by the flood, so the need was clear.
2. What are the details? When and where does it occur? And for whom? Eligibility requirements?
The Flood Support Group meets at 7pm on Wednesdays (weather permitting) at the BPC Annex office, 16 Sherwood Drive (in Sherwood Village, behind Campus Clipper). There really are no eligibility requirements; anyone who has been impacted by the flood, or cares about someone who has been impacted, is welcomed. The first Wednesday of the month is open to children, families and adolescents under age 16. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Wednesdays are for adults and older adolescents (age 16 and older). People can call 570-387-1832 for details, including directions or cancellations due to weather.
3. While respecting the privacy we know you must keep, can you give us a general sense of how people are coping? How are the children doing?
I’m forever impressed and encouraged by the resilience of individuals and communities, and the response to the recent flooding was a good example. The community and those affected by the flood really rose up to help and support each other. That said, when such tragedy strikes, it’s pretty difficult to bounce back functionally, financially and emotionally. Many people are not yet back in their homes, some never will be. Some people are living in just a few rooms of the house amid an ongoing chaos of construction, contractors & utility companies, insurance companies, etc. It takes a toll emotionally when a person’s home is not yet restored to a haven of safety and comfort. Coping with such a loss is a challenge that no one should face alone.
A number of factors can impact a person’s ability to cope with devastation. The extent of the damage, financial resources, and ability to make repairs (e.g. availability of contractors, equipment, supplies, etc.) are some of the more obvious issues. As anyone can imagine, it can be really frightening to have a property that wasn’t insured against flood damage, and state and federal funding only stretches so far. Plus, several people in the support group have told stories of insurance companies not making good on their promises. That’s just adding insult to injury.
On top of the more practical issues, people are dealing with emotional reactions, including anger, frustration, anxiety, a deep sense of loss, and the challenges of being displaced. Privacy has become a thing of the past for many of those affected. People are struggling with just wanting to feel normal again.
People who’ve experienced tragedy may notice signs of depression – changes in sleep, loss of pleasure, feelings of isolation, hopelessness or guilt, tearfulness, difficulty concentrating, appetite or weight changes, even suicidal thoughts. Anxiety symptoms are also common and might include racing thoughts, inability to focus or concentrate, feeling “on edge” all the time, excessive worrying, loss of sleep, etc. For some, the flood had a traumatizing effect, leaving the person feeling unsafe even in secure settings.
Kids who are struggling might show behaviors that are not “normal” for that child. For example, a normally independent kid might suddenly be afraid to let parents out of her sight; a social kid might start spending most of his time alone; a diligent student might stop doing homework or stop studying for tests. Shifts in behavior following a tragedy like the flood might mean that a child is struggling to cope.
My colleagues who work directly with children talk about the losses kids have faced. Families talk about confused routines and the challenges of being displaced from the home, neighborhood, and familiar surroundings. Many kids lost favorite books or toys, or had to throw away cherished items that were contaminated by flood waters. Some families are living away from their pets while displaced from the homes.
4. If people know or love someone affected by the flood, what can they do to help?
Some people have gotten fairly good at asking for help; others are more reluctant. If you see a need, consider filling it without being asked, because the chances are good that the person will not ask. Even the smallest gestures can mean the world. A card or a note saying “I’m thinking about you” lets those you care about know that they are on your mind. Small comforts –packets of hot chocolate or a favorite beverage, a toy for the person’s pet, a distraction that you know the person enjoys (puzzle book, hobby supplies) can be an inexpensive way to say “I’m thinking about you.” If you see them out somewhere, a touch on the shoulder and a kind message, such as “I’ve been thinking about you” is often comforting. In our society, we don’t want to intrude, and it’s hard to know what to do or say, but if someone has been on your mind, let them know. It will mean a lot to them.
Also, you might give someone a break from the post-flood chaos. Invite them to dinner, or out to coffee, or to do an activity. Unless they bring it up, don’t discuss the flood. If they want to talk about it, they will. Remember, for many of these folks, flood-related issues take up most of their time and energy. A nice distraction can be wonderful and healing. Allow the person to choose the direction of the conversation, or ask specific questions that focus on other areas of the person’s life (family, work, hobbies, church, etc.).
Finally, if you run into someone who’s been affected, ask yourself this question before you speak to them, “Do I really care about this person, or am I just curious?” If you really care, then a kind word or gesture will be appreciated (e.g. a pat on the shoulder and a short statement, “It’s good to see you; I hope you are well.”). If you are just curious, consider respecting the person’s privacy and just walking by, or saying a quick “hello.”
5. After a trauma like this, what can victims expect? Everyone deals differently, but how long can symptoms last? Aside from talking in support groups like this, is there anything else victims can do to heal?
Everyone heals in his or her own way. Some people find solace in support groups, spiritual pursuits, projects, hobbies, fitness, therapy, or commiserating with friends and neighbors. Others draw into their families, and some people refocus their efforts toward work, clean-up, or helping others. Coping in these ways is healthy and generally moves people toward restoring their lives to normal.
People also sometimes cope in ways that can cause more problems, even if it feels like a good escape at the moment. If you notice that your alcohol use, smoking or recreational drug use has increased, or you are living on junk food, isolating, watching a lot more TV than usual, etc., then you might be struggling to cope. Also, if you find yourself withdrawing from normal activities, sleeping a lot, isolating, or struggling with other symptoms of depression or anxiety (see above), it might be time to reach out for help. Some behaviors can feel like an escape, but if you’re coping in a way that keeps you from moving forward, it might be time to talk to someone. The support group is a good place to start, or with a friend, family member, trusted co-worker or clergy person, counselor, etc. This experience was devastating for individuals and communities; no one should have to go through the recovery process alone.
6. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
We all need a little extra support sometimes. Through the support group, we’re offering an informal atmosphere where people can come together, share common experiences, take comfort, and exchange information. Those in attendance usually choose the topic(s) and the direction of the conversation. Remember, a support group is about getting support, but it’s also about giving support. Your experiences might be just what someone else needs to hear about: to help them feel less alone, learn about a program they need, consider a new way to cope, etc.
We are centered in Bloomsburg, but want to be sure that people outside of the local community know they are absolutely welcomed to attend. We try to make sure that the word gets out, with flyers, postings in the local paper and on Facebook, and by word-of-mouth. Still, we’re concerned that people who could benefit aren’t aware of the group. If you’re reading this, please spread the word.