Post-hurricane program aims to help reduce stress

SLIDELL, La. (AP) — The 10 women gathered on yoga mats in a New Orleans suburb as the lights went out.

“I would like to invite you to close your eyes,” instructor Stephanie Osborne said soothingly from the front of the room. The only other noises were the hum of the air conditioner and the distant sounds of children playing in a nearby field.

For the next hour, the women focused on various mindfulness exercises designed to help them deal with the stresses of everyday life.

The six-week mindfulness program in Slidell, Louisiana, was the brainchild of Kentrell Jones, executive director of East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity, who worried about the health of his colleagues and others affected by Hurricane Ida, which tore this Region east of New Orleans last year.

Participants meet for an hour once a week for six weeks beginning with the inaugural session this fall and plans for future sessions next year.

Potential participants, who were to live in the parish during Hurricane Ida, completed a survey asking them questions such as whether they had struggled with lack of sleep or had trouble paying their bills or if they had to move since the hurricane. They don’t have to be clients of Habitat for Humanity housing programs, although some are.

Jones said the organization’s customers are struggling to be moved from their homes, trying to make repairs while dealing with insurance and living through another hurricane season in which the calendar is filled with anniversaries of previous storms and everyone keeps an eye glued to the TV for the weather. alerts.

A family she works with had to move to Mississippi following Ida while their tree-damaged home was repaired. By the time the repairs were completed, the husband died of a heart attack.

“You have people who are stressed,” she pointed out.

The program addresses a growing concern – the long-term stress that extreme weather events such as hurricanes can place on the people who experience them. People who work in hurricane-affected areas often speak of the stress the long process of rebuilding can put on people and the anxiety that comes with hurricane season.

In late August, as the anniversaries of Hurricanes Katrina and Ida loom, the New Orleans emergency social media feed reminded residents of the so-called “anniversary effect,” which could trigger feelings of depression or PTSD. After Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September, two 70-year-olds took their own lives after seeing their losses.

In the Louisiana North Shore region, local mental health officials note that hurricanes are often followed by an increase in suicides in subsequent years. Nick Richard, who leads the local branch of the National Alliance for Mental Health, said that after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, suicides increased by 46% in 2007. Other events such as Hurricane Gustav of 2008 or the floods of 2016 showed similar jumps.

Research also suggests that extreme weather events such as hurricanes can have long-term effects on the health of survivors. A study from Tulane University found that hospital admissions for heart attacks were three times higher after Katrina than before the storm.

Another study published earlier this year looked at the death rates for counties that experienced a tropical cyclone over a 30-year period, from 1988 to 2018. The research found there was an increase in certain types of deaths, including cardiovascular and respiratory disease , within six months of landing, suggesting a death toll. often counted in the first weeks after a storm may be underestimated.

The study’s lead author, Robbie Parks, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, said that while major hurricanes such as this year’s Ian get a lot of attention, his research suggests that repeated strikes with weaker cyclones also have adverse consequences. He fears that the full extent of events such as hurricanes will not be captured. It’s an “incredible challenge” to count the dead after a hurricane, he said.

“What if someone has a heart attack within a week of a hurricane?” he said. “So you’re getting into subjective territory.”

One of the women participating in the inaugural meditation course is Louise Mace from Slidell. She had just opened her shop selling home decor items when Katrina wiped it out in 2005. Then, last year, winds from Hurricane Ida and a tornado damaged her roof; since then she has been fighting with her insurance company because she lives in an RV.

The stress took a toll on Mace’s health, with his blood pressure rising and falling. Her doctor recommended meditation, then she met Jones, who recruited her for the course. Mace said it helped her learn techniques to deal with stress and also to know that she was not alone.

“You think you are dealing. You think you are fine. You are not. Listening to others made him better,” Mace said.

The program is funded by the Northshore Community Foundation. Susan Bonnett, president and CEO of the foundation, said that in the aftermath of events such as hurricanes, the foundation would receive funding requests for traditional post-disaster needs – tarps for damaged roofs, for example.

But the foundation also noticed requests for funding for mental health services months after the storm. At the same time, there was a shortage of mental health services in the area, so the organization began looking for creative ways like Kentrell’s mindfulness proposal to address issues they knew were developing. after events like Ida.

Mindfulness classes are designed to develop skills that participants can use to deal with any stress in their life, whether it’s weather-related or something else like a conflict with a family member.

Instructor Stephanie Osborne says people don’t always realize the mental strain extreme weather conditions can cause.

Take Hurricane Ian, for example, when it was not yet clear that the storm was going to hit Florida and not Louisiana. Some of the women gathered outside the community hall after class and asked if they should book a hotel room in Baton Rouge or get gasoline for the generator. All of that buildup has an impact, Osborne said.

“There’s an anxiety, a stress around it, especially for people who are struggling financially,” she said. And if people aren’t aware of how much anxiety they’re holding inside, it can affect things like their health or their work: “It starts spreading in other ways. »


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