N Z Red Cross – helping young people get through stress

From the NZ Red Cross website (here):

New Zealand Red Cross has identified a gap with regard to young people affected by the Canterbury earthquakes and their access to trauma recovery resources.  In response we have joined forces with Youthline and some of New Zealand’s top musicians, athletes and TV personalities to create an online community with advice and support for youth experiencing hard times.

You can find out more about this on-line community at the Address the Stress website here.

We are not looking after each other

There have been many fine words about the need to look after each other, however it is clearly not happening.  Those best placed to help aren’t, and many of those who would like to no longer can. There are problems with EQC and insurance companies causing great distress, however no one who can help is willing to do anything useful. Maybe a working party, review committee, or conference will be offered up, if there is enough noise, but nothing that can make changes. Why? Intervention is inappropriate as it disturbs the theories that govern these things. Why upset organised money if it is only the general public in distress? The need for affordable housing and accommodation attracts pious sentiments, best wishes, and bogus interpretations of market theory. What is being done, is happening in the splendid isolation of remoteness from the problem and unencumbered with a sense of urgency or sympathy for the needs of now and the short term future.  Theory, slogans, and success-statistics are a good way for politicians, businesses, and bureaucrats to avoid the messy details of personal hardship. Many of us have, to some extent or other, become hardened to the callousness of the big players in earthquake recovery. Hardened also to the fact that earthquake victims are not just those killed or injured on the 22nd, or suffered property damage. Occasionally the starkness of how one person has suffered becomes a reminder that not only isn’t it business as usual, it is nowhere near an acceptable new reality either, and those making decisions and issuing directions still don’t value individuals. UK based website Demolition News has picked up on a Northern Outlook article on the distress of a demolition man who helped locate bodies at the CTV building. You can read it here. How many more people like him are around us, suffering their own private isolated hell? Who is looking for them? What corrective market forces does Minister Brownlee or his general manager Roger Sutton anticipate will kick into action? Maybe it is time for those starting to feel strongly about these things to make an impression on those who could make a difference, but choose not to do so. Not only do they not choose to do so, there is no evidence they put great value on the the problems they are not fixing. Harsh? When was the last time a politician, public servant, or business manager resigned on a matter of conscience? Check out the WeCan website (here) for some people who are working on making these sorts of points.

Post-earthquake stress

We are all aware of the difficulties of living through and after a disastrous event. There are also the difficulties of trying to understand what is happening to and within us, and others. Some very good online articles have been published dealing with the effect of stress on Japanese earthquake and tsunami survivors. The articles are based upon research published this week in the journal Nature, Molecular Psychiatry. Perhaps most significant for my understanding was the descriptions of physical changes to the brain (shrinkage) that were measured. Those who are predisposed towards post traumatic stress disorder (and without a brain scan, no one knows this in advance) are particularly vulnerable to changes caused by stress.  For them, shrinkage caused by stress in a particular region of the brain doesn’t have to be great to affect their responses to fear and anxiety. Symptoms will include some or all of flashbacks, emotional numbness, sleeplessness and hyper-vigilance. Good information is available from the sites listed below (click on the name). The Nature website has an abstract, however you have to be a subscriber to access the full article. The Japan Times report is very full and makes this observation of the changes experienced:

“We think these changes are not permanent, because many past studies showed that brain changes were recovered by some therapies or interventions,” said Sekiguchi. “To confirm this, we have already started to follow up the subjects.”

Nature: Molecular Psychiatry Medical Xpress Science Mag ( American Association for the Advancement of Science) Japan Times

Earthquake seminars – Mental Health Education and Resource Centre (MHERC)

The Mental Health Education and Resource Centre and the University of Canterbury have joined together to offer free earthquake seminars.

The seminars will provide an opportunity to:

  • Learn strategies to manage uncertainties and challenges
  • Develop skills to enhance and support relationships with self, whanau and communities
  • Identify responses following the Canterbury earthquakes and appropriate referral pathways

The contact person is Christina Bond at MHERC (03) 365 5344 . Information about the seminars is on the Canterbury webhealth website here. The MHERC website here.

Earthquakes and human cognitive performance

Science Daily, an on-line science news service, has a report on New Zealand research done into the impact of a natural disaster (September 4, 2010 earthquake) on the ability of individuals to assess and respond to situations.

Psychology department Associate Professor William Helton, and PhD student James Head, were investigating  human performance prior to the September earthquake, which fell between the first and second round of tests. This presented an opportunity to see to what extent the earthquake affected their performance.

Some selective quotes from the Science Daily report:

“In their upcoming Human Factors article, “Earthquakes on the Mind: Implications of Disasters for Human Performance,” researchers William S. Helton and James Head from the University of Canterbury explore how cognitive performance can decline after earthquakes and other natural disasters.

“We were conducting a [different] study on human performance requiring two sessions,” said Helton. “In the midst of the study, between the two sessions, we had a substantial local earthquake, which resulted in the rare opportunity to do a before/after study. We were quick to seize the opportunity.”

The researchers measured participants’ cognitive control by asking them to either press a button corresponding to numbers presented on a video screen or to withhold a response to a preselected number presented on the same screen. Normally, participant performance would improve during the second session, but the authors found an increase in errors of omission following the earthquake.

“Presumably people are under increased cognitive load after a major disaster,” Helton continued. “Processing a disaster during tasks is perhaps similar to dual-tasking, like driving and having a cell phone conversation at the same time, and this can have consequences.”

This is banality raised to a fine art. One wonders what the use of it is. Comparing the increased cognitive load of an earthquake with a mundane form of dual tasking suggests a lack of appreciation of both the gravity, and long duration, of the consequences of earthquakes. From rescue, to recovery, to rebuild, to rebuilt is a very long journey.

In our context, a damaging earthquake is both a brief catastrophic event and a catastrophic series of encounters consisting of personal loss, unexplained nature, bureaucracy, financial loss, powerlessness, oppression, and obstructions. The earthquake is instantly damaging, dealing with the processes of personal recovery in the face of uncertainty and obstructions is a period measured in years. For some, personal recovery will never be accomplished in full.

The February 22nd earthquake and its aftermath is where research is required. Impaired performance has been with us constantly from that day, and will continue for an unknown period. Better science with improved focus is needed to measure what is happening to individuals, and also the medium to long term consequences for them, their families, society, and our health, welfare and financial support institutions

The news article is here.