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Tackling post-Harvey anxiety

October 19, 2018 GMT

Fall Creek resident Sue Donaldson still gets nervous every time it rains, even though the one-year anniversary of Harvey has come and gone, even though she’s moved to a new home and started a new life.

“When it rains there are big puddles in our common area,” she said. “The sky gets dark, and I say, ‘It’s still raining. When’s it going to stop?’”

Donaldson is not alone.

The Greater Houston area is dealing with the trauma of the hurricane and its aftermath - navigating insurance, negotiating with contractors and finding a way to move forward. Therapists are reporting more stress-related appointments, and school districts are counseling students on next steps.

According to the Episcopal Health Foundation, 30 percent of the individuals affected by Harvey say their lives are still disrupted. About a fourth of those impacted say their personal financial situation is worse due to the hurricane, and one in six report their quality of life has deteriorated.

About 30 percent of Texans impacted by the storm report serious negative effects on their mental health, the study continued. Symptoms include taking new prescriptions, increasing alcohol use and experiencing outbursts of anger.

Donaldson has found solace in her art - and in moving away from her Kingwood home.

She and her husband Bruce lost almost everything they had during Harvey. They walked away from all of their belongings.

Even when friends rescued and dry-cleaned her clothes, Donaldson still does not feel like wearing them. All of her art, journals and sketchbooks, which she had created for decades, were beyond repair.

The house was torn apart, and the couple decided to sell it as-is.

“I never wanted to live in this nightmare again, to see the water rush in, cover our carpet and our things,” Donaldson said. “It was just terrible.”

The couple lived in the residence since 1981, but Donaldson felt certain that the images from the night Harvey hit would be the ones that stuck when she thought about the house.

Everything from her floating furniture, to being waist deep in water, to flicking a dimming light in hopes of rescue - remained charred in her mind.

The Donaldsons found a new home in Fall Creek and are rebuilding their lives.

Now, she’s painting in a second bedroom of the new house and most of her work is about water. She’s also collecting dollhouse furniture to make assemblages that represent the decimation of Harvey.

And she worries about all of her former neighbors who did not move.

“I really feel that it’s going to flood again,” she said.

Marty Lerman, a doctor with Allied Mental Health Services in Kingwood, said her fear is shared by many of his patients.

And he knows how they feel. He personally lost two vehicles in the storm and the entire downstairs of his home was completely ruined.

His trauma was compounded by countless phone calls to FEMA, insurance and even his senator to find a resolution for his wrecked house. His downstairs was in standing water for four weeks, and contractors did not come until February.

Then, Lerman had to pay out-of-pocket to re-do what the contractors did, as mold continued to grow behind the sheetrock, the showers and the toilet they installed.

“They left us with a house that had to be put back together again,” he said. “It was stripped down to the bare minimum and totally unlivable. It’s just been horrific. It’s a mind-boggling experience.”

Lerman has tried hypnotherapy and holistic healing to keep his stress level down. He seeks help from other therapists, as well as support from his community.

Lerman explained that the type of trauma is unusual.

“It’s not just an event that started and stopped but a progression of bad things,” he said. “It’s not just the hurricane. It’s all the stuff wrapped up with it.”

More stress comes from rebuilding and resettling into new homes, and it all adds up.

“It still hasn’t been resolved,” Lerman said. “People are terrified every time the clouds roll through, because they remember Harvey. It’s triggering all of the fear reactions.”

He added that autoimmune disorders are on the rise as a result.

“There’s overwhelming evidence that if you don’t deal with emotional stress, it’s going to physically hurt you,” he said.

Lerman was treating a 9-year old boy who did not want to go to school. After discussing the problem for a while, the child confessed that he lost his dog in the storm. His parents bought him a new puppy and his anxiety about the canine’s welfare escalated.

“He would sit all night long with his puppy in a closet,” Lerman said. “He was afraid to go to sleep.”

While Lerman has helped countless adults with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said seeing it in a small child was new.

“It dawned on me,” he said. “This kid is everybody. He’s symbolic.”

Just like the child worrying about his puppy, adults are scared thinking about their families, he explained.

“I have a lot more men coming in,” he said. “They couldn’t keep their family safe, and that awareness is driving them nuts. They don’t know what they’ll do if it happens again.”

Lake Houston area school districts are also helping families with their emotions after Harvey.

“Many in our community are still in the rebuilding stage,” Matt Smith, elementary counseling coordinator for the Humble Independent School District, said. “Homes are still being restored, and the impacts of the storm can still be seen in our community today. Social, emotional, and physical safety were at the forefront of our thinking both then and now.”

Even for those families with a roof over their heads, the storm still has lasting effects, he added.

In Humble ISD, school counselors received specialized training on responding to trauma through empathy and the program is ongoing.

The district did its best to keep students in their regular schools, despite changes in address, Smith added. In addition, students are able to receive lessons on skills including optimistic thinking, self-awareness, social awareness and decision-making.

“Individuals need to feel safe, and that often comes through establishing routines,” Smith said. “This can be very difficult during a traumatic event, but there are things we can do to move back toward normalcy.”

Helping students share their feelings is the best action to take, he added.

“Sometimes everyday events can bring up experiences and emotions from the past, and we need to talk that through,” he said. “Heavy rain or talk of storms or hurricanes impacting other areas of the world can bring us to a place of heightened anxiety.”

Smith suggests reaching out to a school counselor. “They are happy to work with your student through this and to offer additional resources if needed,” he said.

Deborah Ross is one of the counselors at Huffman ISD working to help students through Harvey. She explained that often children were not feeling well, not hungry or more tired during the storm.

“Socially the students would talk more to their peers if they were ready to open up about the trauma they suffered,” she said. “Some students were the complete opposite. They were withdrawn and unable to communicate with their peers.”

Ross said that other children provided emotional support to their peers.

“When we would have rainstorms, some students would think it was going to flood again,” she said. “We would reassure them that not all storms are like Harvey.”

She said that parents can help by reassuring children that they are safe whether they are at home or school.

Renee Foster, also a counselor with Huffman ISD, suggests sticking to a routine as much as possible to encourage a sense of normalcy. She also said parents can talk to their children about plans in case of future floods.

“Talk about things being just things -- and that they can be replaced,” she added.

Harvey survivors can learn how to access local, free crisis counseling services, and find other disaster behavioral assistance resources at www.hhs.texas.gov/disaster-assistance.

Harris County residents may also call the Harris Center at (713) 970-7000.

Lindsey Peyton is a freelance writer.