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Employers can help workers deal with post-Katrina stress

Blame it on Katrina. People are absent-minded with a record number locking their keys in the car. Folks are easily irritated. Others are abnormally quiet and lethargic as they battle with depression. Ambulance calls on the Coast for emergency mental health pickups are up 900%.

Dr. William Gasparrini, a Biloxi clinical psychologist, says Coast residents are suffering from “post-Katrina stress disorder.” Like veterans following a war, people who suffering losses and stress as a result of Katrina can have post-traumatic stress disorders reliving the experience through nightmares and flashbacks. There can have difficulty sleeping, feel detached or estranged, and try to escape through drug or alcohol abuse.

Gasparrini said many people are in great pain.

“A lot of people are crying every day,” he said. “Some people are crying when they never used to cry before. Quick shifts between anger and irritability are not unusual. People are likely to make more mistakes. A lot of people are confused or distracted. There are still a lot of areas that are so destroyed. Even if your home was not destroyed, just passing by all the damage is a daily reminder and is upsetting. The important thing to realize is they are not alone. Thousands of people are suffering similar emotional reactions. If people get that message, it relieves some of their anxiety about it.”

Gasparrini’s counseling firm has been called in by employers to help employees cope.

“Sometimes they offer individual sessions with employees which allows them to review the losses have suffered personally: their things, house and friends they have lost,” Gasparrini said. “Talking can help them feel better about it. We do seminars where we teach employees the symptoms of Post Katrina Stress Syndrome, and some of coping skills.”

Even if a business doesn’t bring in mental health professionals, Gasparrini said there are other things they can do to help. Some employees are giving people authorized absence to set up meetings with FEMA and insurance adjusters, or to do tasks such as gutting sheetrock from their house. Some are providing employees with as many as 30 days off to take care of repairs to homes, deal with insurance companies and FEMA, and repurchase appliance and furniture.

Small employers who can’t afford to give the time off can help by giving employees more flexibility to work around meetings with contractors and adjusters.

“That goes a long way to making employees feel valued,” Gasparrini said. “Of course, right now there is a major shortage of employees. A lot of employers are having trouble keeping good help. So you don’t want to lose good employees. Businesses like restaurants and car repair shops need workers. It is not just roofers and construction companies. Businesses really need to make a worker feel valued.”

An example of a business that has been doing a good job of that is Biloxi Regional Hospital. Employees were provided with free food every day for weeks after the storm. When there were long gasoline lines, they were given gasoline. The hospital also gave employees cash bonuses when there were long lines at the bank and curfews.

“They thought of a lot of ways to show workers they were valued, because they knew what people were going through,” Gasparrini said.

There are also ways to provide emotional support. Gasparrini said that includes “active listening,” a willingness to hear what people have lost and their progress in rebuilding. The opportunity to talk to friends and co- workers is very beneficial. Being understanding about emotional reactions is important, as is recommending professional counseling when it is needed.

Psychologists in private practice haven’t benefited from a boon in the need for their services. All had a very slow month or two after the storm and are now struggling to get back to normal.

“A lot of clients have left the area,” Gasparrini said. “Referrals have been disrupted. Business for a lot of family physicians and private practice mental health workers was really disrupted. Some attribute that partly to kind and generous volunteer mental and medical clinics that were set up.”

Gasparrini advises people to be careful with alcohol consumption, and be aware that divorce rates are much higher for couples whose homes were flooded or destroyed.

“It is just a time when there is so much stress for the family,” he said. “It is very important to have loved ones close to you. It is not a time to end a relationship. It is a time to pull together. Emotional and social support is extremely important. The loved ones who are there for you really make a difference. It is one of the most important factors to building resiliency.”

Gasparrini originally thought the mental health fallout from Katrina would last only a few weeks. Now he thinks it could be more like two or three years.

Jim Yancey, executive director of the Jackson County Children’s Coalition, is in agreement that mental health recovery from Katrina won’t happen overnight.

“One challenge is the long-term consequences of the aftermath of Katrina,” said Yancey, who has a degree in marriage and family therapy. “This is not like most storms that come and go.

Twelve weeks after the storm, 9,000 FEMA trailers are needed just in Jackson County, and 5,600 are in place now. Many people are still not back in their homes and won’t be for a long time. The thing about Katrina is everybody has been affected whether their house was destroyed or not.”

For many people, the consequences of the storm are that homes and personal possessions are gone. Jobs could be gone. The way of life was disrupted, and the normal daily routine is just a memory. While government agencies have helped, the needs have been tremendous. The agencies were trained more for a disaster like the September 11th terrorist attacks.

“The problem is this is a regional disaster, not a local disaster,” Yancey said. “It is much, much bigger than 9/11. This isn’t Ivan, which was bad, or one of the earlier storms like Georges. This is one that is going to be with us for a long time.”

Yancey, who is the medical mental health branch director from the Unified Command of Jackson County that is part of the Emergency Operation Center, advises businesses to pay attention to employees and look for possible signs and symptoms which may include the following:

• Keeping to themselves, and distancing themselves from other employees.

• Talking less.

• Missing work days.

• Difficulties concentrating on a task very long.

Yancey said people can be distracted at work because they are concerned about their problems, and don’t have a relaxing home environment to go to after work. FEMA trailers are small, cramped and really designed just to sleep in. There can be issues such as employees not being able to watch television because the children are studying.

Employers can do a lot just by showing concern. Ask, “How are you doing? What has it been like the last month?”

“If possible, slow the pace of operation down enough to ask those kinds of personal questions to employees,” Yancey said. “Sometimes talking about it helps a person even though the situation hasn’t changed. But the situation inside the person has changed. Invite them into the office and over a cup of coffee ask them how they are faring through the storm, or less personal questions about how their friends and relatives are doing. Then conversation can turn to something more serious the employee may need to talk about. Most of the people I interact with do want to talk about it, but not in public. Timing is important. Asking questions in a room full of other employees may be bad timing.”

Yancey said it has been very difficult to get the government resources needed down to the Coast. One of the major ways people are being helped is volunteers. If an employer knows of a volunteer group that is bringing in supplies, feeding people or helping fix houses, posting that information in the break room would be a good idea.
Things are getting more difficult now with colder weather and the holiday season. Mental health problems such as depression often peak during the holidays.

“We are going into that time and have all these people displaced,” Yancey said. “It makes for a very difficult situation. Little issues now become very big issues. Things that didn’t seem to bother people are now bothering people because of the destructive nature of Katrina and the aftermath of it.”

One bright spot is that people have pulled together in ways not seen before. Neighbors who barely knew each other are now good friends. In the case of one neighborhood in Gulfport, Kitsville, one house was left standing while most other homes in the area were destroyed. The homeowner of the house that survived said since the neighbors homes saved their home, sheltering it from the wind and waves of Katrina, “my home is now your home.” The neighborhood residents largely living in FEMA trailers regularly have community gatherings that include “city council meetings” and eat together.

“That is the best coming out in people,” Yancey said. “People get to know each other on a totally different level now. That is priceless.”

Yancey has confidence in the ability of the people of the Gulf Coast to bounce back.

“Resiliency is the ability to bounce back from troubles that hit you,” he said. “I am amazed at the resiliency of many, many of the people down here. Katrina gave us her best shot, but it was not a knockout blow. It felt and looked like a knockout blow. But people are picking pieces up, brick by brick and block by block.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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