Mental health a concern as hurricane season begins

Satellite image of Tropical Storm Andrea Thursday evening
Satellite image of Tropical Storm Andrea Thursday evening

New Orleans, La. - Just the idea of an approaching storm can raise the heart rate and stress level. With the start of hurricane season just a few days past and a long summer ahead, FOX 8 talks with an expert on managing that anxiety.

The first week of the season, and the FOX 8 Weather team is already working to alleviate fears.  Still, any inkling of a storm -- such as T.S. Andrea, which formed Wednesday -- gets attention.

Arthur Washington lives in Gretna. He said when it comes to hurricane season, "Yes, I get anxious because I fear for my life and my loved ones."

Dr. Charles Figley, an associate dean in the Tulane Department of Social Work and an expert in disaster mental health, says that fear can be healthy.

"When there is a storm warning, to prepare for an impact, that's really when the anxiety should be there," Figley said. "We should be worrying about doing all the right things, preparing our minds."

If that fear takes over it can be crippling.  Figley said, "Helping people to manage your anxiety associated with a storm is complicated, but it really comes down to knowing a person really well -- knowing what their experiences have been, knowing where their triggers are, knowing where maybe their blind spots are and being able to approach them in that regard."

He suggests four phases to hurricane season: Preparation, Alert, Evacuate and Review.

Figley said, "During preseason, the first phase, there's hardly any anxiety except for being reminded of the past. Hopefully we gin up their anxiety to the extent where they pay attention and get their supplies."

Fear can become all consuming. Figley said, "The second phase is the most challenging because it's associated with all of the worry people, have because they have to make decisions. The challenge is to not allow that fear to hamper decision making. Often it's really talking with other people, comparing notes with people that you trust and care about... almost having a weather buddy if you will."

He also says to look out for others who typically have a higher level of anxiousness. Figley said, "It doesn't take that much. It takes looking into their eyes, touching their hand, saying, 'I love you and I care about you,' an opening for them to talk about their anxiety."

Locals have their own ways of coping with the stress.

"We really have to be conscious and be alert because it's coming," said one woman.

Washington said, "I pray, pray and trust in God."

Tracey Cannon said, "That's what insurance is for, and that's what prayers are for."

Those and other coping mechanisms will be useful, all the way through November.

Figley says the evacuation phase is generally less stressful because decisions are already made. But it is important for people to review their actions so that they can be even more ready for the next threat.

If you are feeling highly anxious and need a listening ear, Louisiana 211 offers crisis counseling 24 hours a day.  Simply dial 211 on your telephone.