My spouse is from Louisiana, which is a disaster area right now, flooded from days of steady, record-setting rain. I lived there for a while myself, which is how we met, and we got married there, in Tangipahoa Parish (a parish is equivalent to a county, for us Washingtonians). So it's hitting a bit close to home for me - but disasters are still hard to hear about, even when you're far away and don't personally know anyone in them.

More than 10,000 people are in shelters in Louisiana and 30,000 people have been rescued. It is unbelievable seeing the water-logged condition some of our friends' and family’s homes are in.

Celtic Center in Baton Rouge. Photo from Deborah Burst via Facebook.

[Caption: Celtic Center in Baton Rouge. Photo from Deborah Burst via Facebook.]

Denham Springs, east of Baton Rouge, is overwhelmed with water.  Photo from Jeffery Majors via Facebook.

Photo: Denham Springs, east of Baton Rouge, overwhelmed by flooding. Photo from Jeffery Majors via Facebook

Last year, Washington state had its own disaster - one of the most devastating fire seasons ever, burning more than 304,000 acres and forcing evacuations of many towns in north central Washington. It was (and is) heart-rending to see the destruction of homes, displacement of thousands of people, and the numbers of reported dead in the aftermath.

Fire rages along a river in central Washington State. Photo by Washington Department of Natural Resource (DNR)

Fire rages along a river in central Washington State. Photo by Washington Department of Natural Resources

Natural disasters like these have an impact on individual mental health and collective mental health that should not be ignored.  It leaves us with a sense of helplessness. What can we do?

The answer is both simple and complex. It is to let yourself feel grief for the losses the disaster brings, but also to find a way to connect to community, help, and feelings of hope.

In the aftermath of disasters, survivors may face losing a home, a job, pets, or even family members. Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are not uncommon with these types of losses.

Communities affected by disasters will also have to cope with the aftermath long after media coverage and the initial outpouring of support is over. The effect on mental health is also not usually immediately apparent and takes longer to appear in a drawn out emergency. The toll is often worse with longer duration or recurring trauma, and if the disaster is seen as manmade rather than natural.

So what can help our resiliency after a disaster?

Well, I found a great example that demonstrates three important positive coping mechanisms and captures the spirit of resiliency: The Cajun Navy.

The flag for the "Cajun Navy"

The Cajun Navy is the name being given to regular people in the flooded areas, some personally affected and some not, who have volunteered boats and time, rescuing people and delivering supplies. You can read more about them here, but I want to highlight three of the things they are doing for their own wellbeing in a disaster:

Finding Purpose – Often times people who are personally impacted by disasters are some of the first people out the door to help others. Taking action connects us to the larger picture. It connects us to our people. And it gives a sense of purpose and control that disasters strip away from us. Big or small, doing something for others is demonstrated to benefit you.

Finding Social Connections – Isolation has negative impacts on our mental health even without the natural disaster aspect. Social activity is good for our mental health and our ability to bounce back.  You also don’t have to have a very specific skill set to do good or help. Often just knowing there are people who care – including complete strangers! – can bolster our spirits.  

Finding Hope – Try to keep a sense of optimism. The belief that things will work out and you can be a part of it is good for your mental health, whether it comes from a religious or faith-based belief, or from the knowledge that people in your community are there to give you and others a hand when disaster has struck. It can be as simple as thinking of one good thing that has happened to you or that you helped with today. Hope for the future is a key ingredient for mental health and resiliency after a disaster.

It can be hard to imagine, but seeds will sprout again after even the worst Washington forest fire. Cities rebuild even after their highways have turned into rivers. Those who volunteered for or were helped by the Cajun Navy will always remember the good deeds and can-do attitude they brought to a disaster. People like these are the spark of hope that gets us through the dark times.

If you have been impacted by a natural disaster, there are resources available to help you cope. Contact SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Hotline for support: 1-800-985-5990 (TTY: 1-800-846-8517 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.