Friday, May 13, 2011

TOP STORY >> Caring for survivors after the disaster

By Maj. Allan Bigtas
19th Medical Operations Squadron Mental Health Flight commander

The frightful tornadic events that took place last week between Arkansas and Alabama and the flooding across the state over the weekend has left many Airmen stunned and saddened.

For those closest to the events, there may be shock and trauma. Natural disasters and America’s involvement in  the prolonged war against terror have enabled Airmen to become keenly aware of the mental and emotional repercussions of exposure to traumatic events and the importance of providing support, and when necessary, effective treatment to people who have experienced them.

There are two types of trauma — physical and mental. Physical trauma includes the body’s response to serious injury and threat. Mental trauma includes frightening thoughts and painful feelings. They are the mind’s response to serious injury. Mental trauma can produce strong feelings. It can also produce extreme behavior; such as intense fear or helplessness, withdrawal or detachment, lack of concentration, irritability, sleep disturbance, aggression, hyper vigilance or flashbacks.

How to cope with trauma in the first days and weeks after an event? In the Air Force, we have heard the phrase: “Real Wingmen Act.” Well, action is also the appropriate immediate response for helping survivors. Base members saw immediate action minutes after the tornado touched down when the security forces and fire department drove through the debris to get to all base housing residents.

How can the rest of us act? Create an environment of safety. Be calm, hopeful and friendly even if people are difficult; they have been through a lot.  Try to connect to others and listen to their stories if they want to share them.  This can help survivors reduce anxiety relating to the event.  In addition, this can help the other survivors to feel free to express their anxiety. However, don’t try to force someone to share their story if they don’t want to - they may be trying to avoid re-traumatization. Airmen should also try to help survivors to engage in “self care” behaviors: acquire food, clothing and a safe place to live, re-establish routines, access to medical care if hurt, establish contact with loved ones or friends, keep children with parents, caregivers or relatives and connect with helping agencies as needed. Another way of helping is by donating time or goods to a helping organization on- or off-base. Basically, try to be a good “Wingman” to survivors who need help.     

When might someone benefit from seeking professional assistance? Seek medical assistance when survivors are no longer able to take care of themselves or suffers from severe flashbacks, depression, severe anxiety or nightmares. Immediately escort the survivor to an eemergency medical treatment facility if he is experiencing thoughts of harming himself or someone else.

Many types of events have the potential to produce traumatic stress responses. Luckily, most individuals exposed to such events will not experience long-term adverse effects. However, exposure to potentially traumatic events can result in short-term symptoms, which in some cases, may worsen if left unaddressed. Try to remember that these feelings are normal reactions to abnormal situations.

Air Force policy to provide traumatic stress response services to enhance resilience to potentially traumatic events. Team Little Rock has a designated TSR team and help is available after potentially traumatic civil and military events.

Following a traumatic event, individuals can seek up to four one-on-one meetings with any member of the TSR team. These meetings are for the purpose of education and consultation and not for medical assessment and treatment. If more than four meeting are required, the Mental Health Clinic can discuss medical treatment options with the individual. 

For more information about the installation’s support agencies or mental health services, please call the Mental Health Clinic at 987-7338 between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

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