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Date    11-10-05
Contact David Tisdale (601) 266-4499


HATTIESBURG – More than two months after Hurricane Katrina, the storm’s impact is clearly evident on the Gulf Coast and in the Pine Belt. Debris, bent and snapped trees and blue tarps still dot the south Mississippi landscape.

But the psychological fallout experienced by its survivors may not be as glaring as the post-storm wreckage, according to experts at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Dr. Mark Leach, associate professor of psychology at Southern Miss and director of the university’s nationally recognized counseling psychology graduate program, believes in the next four to six months, as people get over the initial shock of the storm, a variety of symptoms could potentially manifest. Those symptoms include physical and mental anxiety, sleep loss and depression, among others.

The best way to recover from such events is by doing so in small steps, Leach said.

“What kind of control can you get in your life now? Are you going to class or work, are you studying, taking prescribed medicine on time, eating regularly?” he said.

“Look at things that you can control directly, not what you can’t control, and get back to some kind of routine as much and as quickly as possible.” He also urged that people maintain regular contact with family and friends to avoid isolation, which can lead to hopelessness.

Understanding the impact on the human mental condition depends on the type of traumatic event that has taken place, Leach said. Disasters can be defined as job loss, economic despair, traumatic personal events – sometimes leading to suicide.

Natural disasters like hurricanes, however, seldom push people to take their own life. “Typically, there’s no increase in suicides (following natural disasters), with the idea being that there’s a sense that we’re all in this together. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, just that when people pull together after such an event, it is less likely,” Leach said.

“People that have been coming in for counseling are resilient – there’s a feeling that they can overcome this,” Leach said. “However, if someone is feeling suicidal, then please, seek mental health services, and seek out family and friends.”

Leach said whether a person needs to seek help depends on what kind of impact events associated with a natural disaster are having on their daily routine. “The question is, ‘is what you are feeling (sadness, depression, etc.) interfering with your daily functioning?’” he said. “It’s a good question to start with.”

Southern Miss is providing assistance for students, faculty and staff, as well as community members, through counseling services available at the Hattiesburg campus and at the Gulf Coast Student Service Center in Gulfport.

“The Counseling Center (on the Hattiesburg campus) has had a 400 percent increase in the number of individuals seeking our services, as compared to this time last year,” said Dr. Jacqueline Weibe, who recently joined Southern Miss as director of the counseling center.

Weibe, a psychiatric physician, said that in addition to the increased volume of those seeking services since the storm, the clinic’s staff has also seen a significant increase in the severity of clinical presentations.

“While there are general understandings of what the impact of a catastrophe has on the mental health of individuals within a community, the reality is that each individual responds in a unique and sometimes unpredictable way, requiring flexibility and dedication to service by mental health care providers,” she said.

In addition, more time has been required from USMCC counseling staff in providing crisis intervention.

“These changes occurred very quickly following the hurricane, requiring that the Southern Miss Counseling Center counselors begin devoting time and energy to providing clinical services even before the university reopened on Sept 12,” Weibe said.

The professional staff currently consists of one psychologist, two licensed clinical social workers, one licensed professional counselor, and one psychology doctoral intern. Direct services currently include individual and group therapies and referrals for psychiatric evaluation where indicated. All services are confidential and free.

“The staff of both the Southern Miss Counseling Center and Southern Miss Health Services have demonstrated exceptional dedication to students' needs in this difficult time, often at the expense of their own needs,” she said. “They should be commended.”

Although the Southern Miss Counseling Center is a part of the university’s Division of Student Affairs, Weibe said that on occasion the clinic’s staff does work with university faculty and staff who are in crisis and also provides community referrals to them for ongoing care. The referral list includes the Southern Miss Department of Psychology’s Community Counseling and Assessment Clinic.

Weibe said that it is critical that students who have suffered direct losses from the hurricane, especially new students, continue to be supported by the university’s faculty, staff and fellow students during their recovery process.

“The student population is particularly vulnerable, given the stage of life they are in, as they work through the process of determining who they are as individuals, separate from their families,” Weibe said. “The timing of this hurricane, so soon after beginning the academic year, has had an impact on students with less developed coping strategies, a significant number of which are in the brand new freshman year.”

Dr. Ray Scurfield, associate professor in the Southern Miss School of Social Work, is volunteering his services as a counselor for faculty, staff and students at Southern Miss’ Gulf Coast Student Services Center in Gulfport. Scurfield is a licensed clinical social worker, who previously worked for 25 years providing counseling services for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and is also coordinating assistance for homeless faculty and staff at Southern Miss Gulf Coast

Scurfield said that although many students, faculty and staff are still preoccupied with trying to put their lives back together after the storm, they are glad to return to school for the fall 2005 semester. But he warned that they not succumb to a “tunnel vision” mentality and focus exclusively on concrete tasks at the expense of dealing with emotional issues.

“Some people become so activity-oriented that they push those (emotions) aside,” he said. “Others are not able to do that. It’s important to be honest with yourself, and if you need help, get it whether from a professional counselor or through your place of employment or church, wherever you feel comfortable seeking assistance.”

Scurfield described the efforts of faculty, staff and students at Southern Miss Gulf Coast to resume operations for the fall as “heroic” in the face of incredible adversity.

“A lot of people worked really hard to get this off the ground (restarting the semester after the storm).”

For more information about counseling services at Southern Miss, call (601) 266-4829 for the Hattiesburg campus or (228) 234-2062 for the Southern Miss Gulf Coast Student Service Center.



* Give yourself time to heal; try to be patient with changes in your emotional state.
* Ask for support from family, friends, and co-workers.
* Communicate your experiences in whatever ways feel comfortable to you, such as by talking with family or close friends or keeping a diary.
* Find out about local support groups.
* Establish or re-establish routines.
* Help those that you can. Helping others, even during your own time of distress, can give you a sense of control and feel better about yourself.
* Avoid major life decisions, such as switching careers or jobs, if possible. These activities tend to be highly stressful.
* Individuals with prolonged reactions that disrupt their daily functioning should consult with a trained and experienced mental health professional.

(Source: American Psychological Association Help Center)

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Last updated: 12/23/05

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