Dominica Strong

One year ago (August 27, 2015), Mother Naturewreaked destructionin the Nature Isle, Dominica. The island was hard hit by Tropical Storm Erika (‘Erika’), which resulted in island-wide damage to homes, bridges, schools, and churches. Erika brought record levels of rainfall (estimates up to a total of approximately 13 inches of rain) in a relatively short period of time, causing severe flooding and mud slides. Official reports indicate that Erika claimed the lives of 30 individuals and left 574 individuals displaced from their homes(National Hurricane Center, 2016). While the economic impact of the storm has been investigated (and rightly so, as damage to infrastructure impairs our day-to-day functioning), little has been done by way of assessing the psychological impact of Erika – particularly among youth. Consequently, the Dominica Strong Research Study was launched in order to measure stress, coping, health, and resilience in the aftermath of Erika, among a sample of adolescents (13-17 years) and emerging adults (18-29 years).The purpose of this article is to shed some light on the consequences of Erika as it relates to the psychological well being, based on results from a subsample of participants from the Dominica Strong research study.

One important factor in assessing the impact of any negative life event is a measure of the degree of exposure to the event. To this point, youth were asked to comment on the extent to which they were exposed to the storm, including: direct damage to their homes, physical separation from loved ones, and loss of friends and family. Findings indicate that over 55% of youth knew someone who got hurt because of Erika and nearly 40% of youth reported knowing someone who died because of Erika. Furthermore, approximately 30% of youth were separated from their friends and family and did not have enough food and water as a result of Erika. Both loss (as in the case of death) and separation from loves ones (even temporary) are major stressors that may result in negative feelings in both the short and long-term. Losing a family member or friend may represent a major change in one’s life and feelings of guilt, sadness, and loneliness may ensue.

Psychologists use the term post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) to define a mental state in which individuals who have been exposed to a traumatic event display signs of persistent distress in reaction to that event. It is important to note that only a trained doctor or mental health professional can diagnose PTSD. However, there are signs of PTSD that can help researchers to quantify the extent to which individuals experience severe distress in reaction to a negative event – such as a natural disaster. Results of the study indicate that just over 20% of youth reported:a) having repeated, disturbing thoughts, memories and images of Erika; b) felt very irritated and angry; and c) felt very upset when thinking about Erika. Furthermore, a sizeable proportion of youth (40%) reported feeling very alert and ‘on guard’ even at 6 months post-Erika – which may be a sign of anxiety. Thus, although the majority of youth do not appear to have been traumatized by Erika, a notable proportion of youth did experience PTSD symptoms.

Tavernier conducted her research in Dominica

Tavernier conducted her research in Dominica

A related measure of psychological distress is depression. Depression, defined as an intense and relatively prolonged period of sadness, can only be diagnosed by a trained doctor or mental health professional. However, similar to PTSD, there are signs that researchers can measure to determine the extent to which an individual may be at-risk for developing depression. Results from the study showed that nearly 35% of youth said that they felt depressed; 31% said they had lost their appetite, and 45% said that they felt like they lacked the energy to do certain things. Feelings of sadness, loss of appetite, and a lack of energy are all symptoms of depression, which, if left untreated, may have serious negative consequences.

One aspect of well being that is affected by psychological distress is sleep. Adequate and good quality sleep is critical for both physical and mental wellbeing. In the present study, results indicate that the majority of youth (approximately 80%) reported having very little or no problems falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night. However, up to 40% of youth indicated that they experience some problems with waking up in the morning. Of note, 50% of youth reported that they had experienced nightmares in the past month and less than half of youth surveyed said that they were not satisfied with their overall quality of sleep.

When individuals experience distress, there are a number of strategies that they can use in order to cope.In the Dominica Strong study, results are reassuring in that they indicate that the majority (55%) of youth have been seeking emotional support from others as a way of coping with Erika. Social support is an effective coping strategy that has been associated with mental wellbeing. Many youth (50%) also reported seeking advice from others in how to cope with Erika. Notably, an overwhelming 70% of youth reported finding comfort in their religion and spiritual beliefs.

Despite the negative psychological distress that results from the experience of a traumatic event, some individuals display tremendous resilience. On a positive note, among students who participated in the research study, 60% said that they generally come through difficult experiences with little trouble and an overwhelming 80% believed that they bounce back quickly after difficult experiences. Indeed, this resilient attitude is a significant contributing factor to positive mental health. It is important to keep in mind that experiencing negative thoughts and feelings are normal reactions to a stressful event. It is the prolonged experience of these feelings, in the absence of effective support, that may result in serious mental health problems. It is critical that everyone – students, parents, teachers, church and community leaders, government officials and policy makers – continue to support research efforts geared at assessing the psychological health of our youth. Research findings can equip us with the necessary information needed to devise evidence-based programs that support and help youth to effectively cope with psychological distress.

As we look back on the physical devastation of Erika, let us also be mindful of the psychological damage that some may have endured and even continue to grapple with to this day. Let us be mindful of the power of words when we talk about our experiences. Let us be considerate of others’ feelings when we share images and post comments on social media. Let us validate each other’s experiences by being empathetic and supportive instead of being judgmental and dismissive. And lastly, let us keep the faith and take solace in the resilient nature that is the backbone of our Dominican people. Together, we are ‘Dominica Strong’.

A report on the key findings from Phase I of the study can be found here.

References

Pasch, R.J., & Penny, A. B. (2016). Tropical Cyclone Report: Tropical Storm Erika. National Hurricane Center.http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/data/tcr/AL052015_Erika.pdf

*The Dominica Strong research study was funded by the Foley Center at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL,

Royette Tavernier is a native of Dominica, based in the U.S. She is a developmental psychologist, whose research program examines the link between sleep and psychosocial adjustment. Tavernier is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wesleyan University. For more information about the author, visit: http://rtavernier.faculty.wesleyan.edu/; Follow her on Twitter: @_RTavernier. E-mail: rtavernier@wesleyan.edu.