Natural disasters are natural events with often tragic consequences. According to Wikipedia a natural disaster is defined as ‘the effect of a natural hazard’. Cyclones, floods, fires, drought, volcanos and earthquakes are all natural hazards that can cause a disaster. In Australia, we are prone to many different kinds of natural disasters and recently we have seen the devastating effects of drought, fires, flood and most recently, Cyclone Yasi, in Queensland.
People respond to disasters in different ways. Some people take charge, others evacuate, whilst others try and ignore it and pretend it is not there, or that it is not as bad as it is. It is important to understand the way a disaster may impact on you and the people around you, and to recognise that however you respond, it is most likely a normal reaction to a really stressful event.
Impact on Young People
A natural disaster can impact on all areas of our lives, as well as the lives of our family and friends. The needs of teenagers can sometimes be overlooked in times of crisis because often they don't feel like talking about what is happening for them.
Some ways a disaster may affect you include:
Physical - injuries sustained during the disaster, access to food and shelter or physical symptoms of emotional stress like nausea or headaches
Emotional - grief over people and pets that are missing or belongings that have been lost or intense emotions like fear, anxiety, sadness, guilt or depression
Cognitive - repetitive thoughts, nightmares or trouble concentrating at school
Spiritual - questioning your beliefs, faith or turning to God for help
Social - changes to friendships, relationship troubles with mum and dad or your siblings
Even if you haven't been directly affected by the event itself the impact of a disaster can be felt through seeing news footage or seeing the impact that it has had on friends and family.
You may also experience a phenomenon called ‘Survivor Guilt’. Survivor guilt is a feeling that some people get when they have had a lucky experience in a natural disaster. For example, if all of the houses around you are destroyed in a cyclone but your house survived, you may feel like you did not deserve to have missed out even though it was just luck that you did.
Impact on Families
Disasters may have a lasting impact on families. Even after the initial threat of danger has passed there can be medium and long term consequences of a disaster. Obviously not all of these issues happen to every family but it is normal to experience many of these problems.
Immediate: worrying about the whereabouts and safety of other family members, finding a place to live, conflict between family members and cleaning up the mess
Medium term: starting to rebuild, financial stress, dealing with changes to routine, sometimes one person in the family needs more help and may get more attention than others, family members may withdraw from each other
Long term: experiencing recurring memories, nightmares, increased use of drugs and alcohol, development of other mental health issues such as anxiety or depression
Dealing with a Natural Disaster
Before a disaster
Many disasters are sudden and unpredictable however sometimes there is forewarning that a disaster is on its way - like if a cyclone is expected to hit or you know that you live in an area where flooding or bushfires are common. It is important to be aware of what you should do in the case of an emergency and make preparations to ensure your house is as safe as possible. Your parents or carers may take care of all this stuff for you, but it might be worth discussing any concerns or ideas you have, that could help you to feel safer.
Being prepared in case of an emergency can help you be as physically safe as possible, and can also help you feel safe. Going online can be a good source of information - you can find latest updates, checklists and guides about what to do before, during and after a disaster.
Here are some sites that you could go to for advice on planning for a disaster:
After the disaster
Natural disasters are highly stressful events that can cause lots of damage. Often people can go into ‘survival’ mode and operate on the adrenalin that is created by the event. This can enable people to work for long periods of time, staying one step ahead of things, responding quickly to the needs of people around them, seemingly not needing food or sleep. You may have had an experience like this? It is important to understand that it is not possible to operate like this forever, and eventually a disaster will take its toll. At such a time it is important to know how to manage your stress levels even though it may seem like there is so much left to be done.
Here are some ideas for looking after yourself following a disaster:
- allow time and space to look after yourself
- try and reduce the number of activities that increase your stress levels
- increase positive activities and fun
- try and find things to distract you and help you to feel connected to other people
- talk to a friend, parent or an adult you trust
After a disaster is over, some people experience symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, repetitive distressing memories, increased use of drugs and alcohol, nightmares and strong feelings of sadness, fear or depression.
All of these can be normal after a natural disaster, however if they hang around for long periods of time after the event or start having a major impact on your life, it is important to talk to a professional about it.
Here are places that you can turn to for help:
- Call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or go online to talk with a counsellor at http://www.kidshelp,.com.au
- Visit your local GP
- Talk with a trusted adult, school counsellor or teacher
Published: 23 March 2011