They’re the invisible effects of natural disasters: trauma, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. So when Atrium Health’s MED-1 team deployed to serve communities affected by Hurricane Florence, it included a behavioral health specialist to offer comfort in the midst of chaos.

Your Health | 15 days ago

Comfort Amid Chaos

A behavioral health specialist offers emotional support to communities reeling from natural disaster.

Houses flooded. Trees fell, as did power lines. Destruction from Hurricane Florence not only threatened the buildings and flooded the streets of Burgaw, North Carolina, but it threatened lives as well. Yet during this time, the only operational hospital within 50 miles of town was in the parking lot of a Family Dollar. 

Burgaw was among the hardest hit cities during the hurricane. Its hospital: Pender Memorial Hospital, closed due to safety concerns on September 12, two days before Florence made landfall. To serve the community’s medical needs while the hospital remained closed, Atrium Health deployed its MED-1 team, who arrived in Burgaw to set up a mobile hospital with a staff of doctors, nurses and other health specialists.

This was the first MED-1 deployment that included a behavioral health specialist. Calvin Harvel, a peer support specialist at Atrium Health, joined the team to provide emotional support to communities in the midst of this natural disaster.

“We carry more than medicine,” Harvel says of the MED-1 team. “We do give out a lot of medicine, we bring doctors and nurses, but sometimes people just need hope. A touch of the hand. A hug.”

Mostly, he listened to the patients who came into the mobile unit. People need to feel heard, he says, so he was there to listen to them talk about the homes they had lost, the concern for relatives who wouldn’t evacuate, and the sadness of enduring a second major hurricane in just two years.

During one busy night, nine people waited in the triage unit to be seen by a doctor or nurse. Harvel began to reach out to each of them, and slowly, they began to reach out to each other. Soon, their nine chairs formed a circle in the waiting room, as people shared their stories with each other about what brought them there.

“None of us knew each other coming in that room, but yet we got to know each other so well,” Harvel says. “We all shared what was going on in our lives, and it was a bonding experience.”

Mental Health Impacts of Natural Disasters

Even after the winds calm, waters recede and power restores, the impact of natural disasters continues. Anxiety and fear are common during natural disasters, but for some, they will continue and begin to interfere with daily activities. For some people, this can mean depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For people already dealing with mental health challenges, it can exacerbate those issues.

“Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, can compel people to think about their own vulnerability,” says Rodney Villanueva, MD, a psychiatrist with Atrium Health. “These events can bring to light to the fact that our safety and our lives are pretty fragile. People wonder, ‘Could this happen again?’”

People who didn’t have mental health challenges previously may find themselves wrestling with fear, depression or anxiety after a natural disaster. Those who already faced mental illness may find those challenges exacerbated.

“Vulnerable people can be affected to an even greater degree,” Dr. Villanueva says. “This includes the very young and the elderly, who may not have access to resources or the ability to help themselves.”

People should be aware of what they’re feeling, in order to determine if they should speak with a medical professional about possible means of support. If they find that their anxiety or sadness makes it difficult for them to complete their usual tasks, it’s an important sign to consider beginning the conversation with a primary care physician. And, Dr. Villanueva says, it’s important to check in on friends, neighbors and relatives impacted by natural disasters. Social support can be preventive against things like PTSD and depression, so talking with others is crucial after disaster hits.

Beginning a Journey to Healing

As part of the MED-1 team, Harvel let the people of Burgaw know that their emotions and mental health were important, to stress the importance of reaching out to others and to connect them with healthcare services they may need.

From the parking lot of that Family Dollar, the MED-1 team served the community while its hospital remained closed for nearly two weeks. They performed surgeries there; they delivered two babies there. And in the midst of it all, they provided comfort as well as medical care.

The hospital reopened on September 25, allowing the people of Burgaw to return to their community hospital and to their usual doctors to continue their care. Atrium Health’s MED-1 team returned home. Harvel said that it was hard to leave a community that he’d gotten to know so well.

“As I left, I knew I was going back to my home and leaving so many people who had lost theirs,” Harvel says. “But maybe they’ll remember that we helped somehow, that we were able to be here to help them to begin their recovery and their journey to healing.”


Mental Health Checklist for Natural Disasters:

Prepare for the Storm

If your area is at risk of a natural disaster, prepare before disaster strikes. As part of your disaster emergency kit, create a list of resources for your medical and mental health needs. Know who to call and where to go in case of emergency.

Check in on Yourself

It’s natural to feel anxiety and fear during and after a natural disaster. When those feelings begin to interfere with your ability to function at home or at work, it may be a sign to seek help. You can begin this conversation with your primary care doctor: tell your doctor what you’re experiencing, and your doctor can connect you with the resources that will be most helpful for you.

Check in on Friends and Family

Maintaining close connections with friends and family members who live in affected areas is important. Ask them how they’re doing, listen openly to their responses. Understand that mental health impacts can occur long after the natural disaster has passed; just because land is dry and power is on doesn’t mean that the impact is no longer felt.

Know that Help is Available

If you or a loved one needs assistance, Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line is available 24/7 at 704-444-2400 for the entire community – not just current Atrium Health patients. It’s answered by counselors who can offer you a wealth of information and support.