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
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,”
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
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
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
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.
MANAGING TRAUMATIC STRESS: AFTER HURRICANES KATRINA, RITA
* 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
* 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
(Source: American Psychological Association Help Center)
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