After hurricanes, program aims to help alleviate stress

SLIDELL, LA. – The ten women gathered on yoga mats in suburban New Orleans, the lights dimmed.

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

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

The six-week mindfulness program in Slidell, Louisiana, is the brainchild of Kentrell Jones, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in East St. Tammany, who was concerned about the health of her colleagues and others affected by Hurricane Ida, which swept through the region east of New Orleans. last year.

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

Potential participants, who had to live in the parish during Hurricane Ida, filled out a survey asking them questions such as whether they struggled with lack of sleep or had trouble paying bills or had to relocate after the hurricane. They are not necessarily clients of Habitat for Humanity’s housing programs, although some are.

Jones said the organization’s clients have struggled with being displaced from their homes, trying to complete repairs while dealing with insurance and surviving another hurricane season in which the calendar is filled with anniversaries of previous storms and everyone is watching the TV. about the weather conditions. warnings.

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One family she worked with had to relocate to Mississippi after Ida while their tree-damaged home was repaired. As soon as the repairs were completed, the husband died of a heart attack.

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

The program addresses a growing concern – the long-term stress that extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, can take on the people who live through them. People who work in areas affected by hurricanes often talk about the stress that the long rebuilding process can take on people and the anxiety that arises during hurricane season.

In late August, with the anniversaries of Hurricanes Katrina and Ida, a social media post about emergency preparedness in New Orleans reminded residents of something called the “anniversary effect,” which can trigger feelings of depression or PTSD. After Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September, two men in their 70s took their own lives after seeing their losses.

In the north coast region of Louisiana, local mental health officials note that hurricanes are often followed by increased suicides in subsequent years. Nick Richard, who heads the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health, said that after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, suicides increased by 46% in 2007. Other events such as Hurricane Gustav in 2008 or the floods of 2016 showed similar spikes.

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

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

The study’s lead author, Robbie Parks, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, said that while major hurricanes like this year’s Ian get a lot of attention, his research suggests that repeated hits by weaker cyclones also take a toll. He is concerned that the full extent of events such as hurricanes are not captured. It’s an “incredible challenge” just to count the dead after a hurricane, he said.

“What if someone has a heart attack the week after the hurricane?” he said. “Then you get into subjective territory.”

One of the women participating in the inaugural meditation course is Louise Mays of Slidell. She had just opened her store selling home decor goods when Katrina wiped it out in 2005. Then, last year, Hurricane Ida’s winds and a tornado damaged her roof; since then she has been battling her insurance carrier while living in a camper.

The stress took a toll on Mace’s health as her blood pressure jumped up and down. Her doctor recommended meditation, and then she ran into Jones, who recruited her for the course. Mace said it helped her learn stress management techniques and also know she wasn’t alone.

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“You think you have a job. You think you’re fine. You are not. Listening to other people made it better,” Mays said.

The program is funded by the Northshore Community Foundation. Suzanne Bonet, the foundation’s president and CEO, says that immediately after events like hurricanes, the foundation will receive requests for funding around traditional post-disaster needs — for example, tarps for damaged roofs.

But the foundation also saw requests for funding for mental health services months after the storm. At the same time, there was a lack of mental health services in the region, so the organization began looking for creative ways like Kentrell’s proposal for mindfulness to address the problems they knew would be created after events like Ida.

Mindfulness classes are designed to build skills that participants can use to deal with any stressors in their lives, whether they’re 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 can cause.

Consider Hurricane Ian, for example, when it was not yet clear that the storm would hit Florida and not Louisiana. Some of the women gathered outside the community room after class and discussed whether they should book a hotel room in Baton Rouge or get gas for the generator. All that cramming takes a toll, Osborne said.

“There’s an anxiety, a stress about it, especially for people who are struggling financially,” she said. : “It’s starting to spill out in other ways.”

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Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.

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