With at least 40 dead and hundreds more injured by tornadoes and flooding here in the last two weeks and with more severe weather in the forecast, it’s time for all of us in this area to take a mental health inventory.
I want to stress “all of us.” Obviously, those directly affected by the destructive weather-losing loved ones, homes, other property, regular life routines-should be aware of the nature of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how it can manifest itself in different ways. I’m sure counseling outreach efforts are underway in the most damaged areas of the metropolitan area. PTSD is an extremely major mental health condition. It should not be minimized, and people can get through it.
But everyone who lives here right now is dealing with stress because of the weather. No one should diminish the impact of survivor’s guilt on people who went supposedly unscathed by the violent weather. No one should be criticized for feeling rattled or glum over what has happened here.
All of us have been affected by the storms, even if it’s indirectly. In my case, I’ve had family, friends and students impacted by the storm. I’ve tried to be extremely supportive. I do think I’m feeling some guilt over the fact that my life hasn’t been much disrupted. I’m reminded of this every time I see the devastation on television. I know that other people in my “unscathed” position are experiencing similar feelings.
I’m not a psychologist, but I do know it helps to acknowledge and talk about feelings. So here are what I think are three typical Oklahoma responses to the recent severe weather:
Feelings of helplessness. I’ve been writing about the need for more storm shelters and reinforced buildings in Oklahoma for years, and there’s much we can do to prepare for violent weather, but everyone has to deal with the reality at any given moment. When that reality suddenly includes a massive EF5 tornado or multiple tornadoes skipping across the landscape over a two-week period, the feeling of helplessness is almost complete. Shelter in place? Make a run for it? Cry? Laugh? Raise a fist to the sky and scream? These feelings of helplessness can find their way into other aspects of our lives and get magnified out of proportion.
Survivor’s guilt. I mentioned this earlier. Those of us who went through the storms so far without any major or even minor loss might feel some guilt. We can donate money and help in the recovery, but that doesn’t necessarily make these feelings go away. What happens is that this guilt can affect our ability to enjoy ourselves. It also becomes a burden or a weight we carry around. It’s easy to say things such as “guilt is a wasted emotion,” but just saying that doesn’t make it go away.
Why do I live here? This is the Okie existential response to the storms. Now, I know, there’s been a lot of talk about the “Oklahoma spirit,” all that, after these storms, but the fact of the matter is we live in a place that has awful, violent weather that can strike at any given time. It destroys and damages our homes and takes lives at random. (I wrote recently about how the state ranks only below Texas and California in declared disasters by the federal government.) People here will talk about how all areas of the world suffer through violent weather or how unlikely the odds are you will be killed by a tornado, but given the sheer numbers Oklahoma stands out for its violent weather. Many of us here choose to live here despite this or we get stuck here, and we end up developing defense mechanisms to qualify our decision for ourselves and, in some cases, people who live outside the state. We can end up in a morass of self-deprecation that’s not good for self-esteem.
Generally, Oklahomans are not necessarily known as people who talk about their feelings a lot, but we are known for having high levels of mental illnesses. To deny that the weather isn’t some part of that mental health equation is to deny ourselves access to the truth. For those of us, like myself, who choose to stay here, let’s openly acknowledge the depression and anxiety that can come with our violent weather. Let’s talk about it. Let’s take it seriously. Let’s get appropriate medical help if we need to or talk it out with our family and friends. We’re all affected here by these violent storms.