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After a Disaster, Children Need Special Attention to Recover

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Soon after he became popular, the American humorist James Thurber found himself in front of an elderly socialite at a dinner party who asked, "Don't you think things are getting worse?" Thurber quickly replied, "I don't care about 'things,' madam, I care about people."

Right now, after the perfect storm known as Hurricane Sandy, Thurber's words couldn't be more resonant. One after another, residents of shoreline communities devastated by Sandy's unprecedented impact are sharing this same sentiment. The loss of "things" hurts a lot, whether homes, personal property or a lifetime of treasures, photographs and memories that vanished in the tides or were irrevocably damaged. Yet hundreds of these same victims of our most recent climate disaster utter deeply held truths we all share -- declaring, "We lost everything we owned, but things don't matter -- we have our families, our friends, our dreams, and for this we are thankful."

The emergency phase of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy will soon draw to a close. With power restored, survivors of this monumental catastrophe will soon be fed, clothed and housed -- reconnected to life's most basic needs. FEMA officials, insurance agents, community organizations, religious groups and neighborhood coalitions are collaborating with thousands of volunteers from all over the world to provide the "things" necessary for survival. Food, water, blankets, clothing, diapers, toiletries, books, toys and virtually every material essential imaginable are all arriving daily, being collected and efficiently distributed, assuring a return to the "illusion of safety" within which we all continue to live.

Most onlookers assume that what comes next is rebuilding homes, schools and businesses; indeed, the debris, refuse, sand and waste are already being cleared -- inviting opportunities for reconstruction of local schools, reopening businesses and revitalizing neighborhoods. But another step precedes the reconstruction phase of a disaster like this, and its importance should not be underestimated. What needs to happen must focus on the extraordinary resilience of children and safe ways to rekindle their boundless joy and natural playfulness.

The "recovery phase" can bring disillusionment, when attention turns not to people's "things" but to their emotions, their inner landscapes severely impacted by the very real traumas of shock, loss, grief, fear, anger and worry. These potent, natural emotions will begin to become even more evident in the days and weeks ahead as survivors take stock of what has really happened, their lives forever changed as temperatures drop further and bands of volunteers retreat. The numbing effect of placing our attention on the outer world has a way of diminishing in the dark of winter. In the next 60 days, these same emotions will now be either safely released and externalized from the tissues of the body or repressed into the depths of despair, covered by artificial smiles and a dangerous denial.

When natural emotions are repressed over a period of just a few months, they may become distorted, potentially taking up residence in the physical body and manifesting later as classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Skin eruptions, breathing problems, digestive issues, heart palpitations and a wide range of emotional disturbances like sleep problems or irrational fears begin to emerge. Psychosomatic illnesses like these are most common in populations of children impacted by natural disasters when effective interventions are not instituted in the recovery phase. Studies have estimated that 90 to 92 percent of children have natural coping mechanisms to readjust without incidence, but 8 to 10 percent of children will suffer long-term consequences.

While the larger agencies provide emergency provisions in the immediate aftermath, few groups provide emotional support beyond palliative approaches, quiet counseling and minimally expressive therapies that are primarily cognitive in nature. While these efforts do carry value, they often do not reach the invisible wounds of a disaster that have become more somatic, body-centered, and latent imbalances -- ones that can later become physically systemic, frequently causing the symptoms described above. These problems -- and PTSD -- are preventable.

The Fortunate Blessings Foundation "Second Response" Trauma Teams have been active throughout the world for nearly a decade. As part of our work following natural disasters, we have developed a simple, body-centered, and proven therapeutic approach with two specific goals: Our first aim is to prevent and reduce children's post-traumatic-stress-related symptoms, depression, somatic complaints, functional impairment, separation fears and generalized anxiety; secondly, we build capacity on the ground so that future events can be met with similar, effective responses by local caregivers.

We see remarkable changes in children within very short periods of time. Our work with tsunami-traumatized children in Sri Lanka is a testament to our success. Our methods have been applied cross-culturally to American, Palestinian, Sri Lankan, Israeli, Thai, Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese students with equal success. PTSD -- characterized by stress-related conditions such as asthma, skin problems, irritable bowel, nightmares, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, anxiety attacks, etc. -- has been significantly minimized in the groups with whom we've worked following our protocols.

It is our intention to train caregivers, social workers, teachers, parents, health ministries, mental and physical health personnel, and others in order to help children before PTSD sets in. We can teach and demonstrate our methodologies and pass on this expertise to local teachers, parents, and health professionals as we've done all over the world. What we do is very simple, completely non-confrontational and deeply respectful. Our "work" occurs to children as playful fun and games.

We will organize trainings in the tri-state area beginning in the second week of December and will conduct our "playshops" throughout the following 10 days. We are available to go wherever our efforts are welcome, including any and all affected areas to "play" directly with those impacted.

Depending on funding and availability of staff, each team has two to six experienced Ph.D. psychologists, social workers, youth counselors, or others with vast experience working with children affected by trauma, loss, grief, fear, torture, and natural disasters. We also travel with celebrities, artists and other local notables who can attract a wider audience through their own contacts and recognition. A training session typically lasts from two to three hours and can include up to 50 caregivers. Sessions with children can be between one and two hours, depending upon the number and their age. We can conduct smaller sessions with affected children as well as larger groups of 200 children at one time.

We are extremely good at what we do, facilitating a natural release of fears, grief, anger, and other emotions and effectively demonstrating to volunteers and lay people ways to understand the nature of PTSD. We can identify special cases and the needs of children who are severely dissociated, and help to coordinate vital follow-up with local agencies and mental health professionals. Our methodologies are safe, highly-effective interventions that most children love and eagerly embrace.

"Second Response" builds resilience, restores hope, and focuses on recovering the original ability of children -- the boundless joy of life itself. We welcome inquiry, donations, support and collaboration.