After a two-decade absence from the East Coast, I decided to pay an overdue visit to an Atlantic beach. A few months back, my wife and I booked 3 nights in a B & B in Cape May, New Jersey, and I took 2 days’ vacation from my university duties. We arrived Thursday afternoon, unpacked quickly, and set out for a couple of hours to survey the lovely beach community. Coming back to the beautiful Victorian guesthouse to change for dinner, we learned of a mandatory evacuation courtesy of Hurricane Irene, bearing down on the heavily populated region from the Carolinas up to New England. Our brief holiday had been cut short. Bummer!
We dined, got to bed early, awoke at sunrise, downed a quick breakfast, and set out for an uncertain drive home. The coastal evacuation stretched from North Carolina through northern New Jersey. We knew there would be serious traffic.
My new car feeds real-time traffic updates into the GPS guidance system. As I drove, my wife sat with an iPad on her lap, receiving live route information and weather reports. We were fed and rested. And since our home in Central Pennsylvania is well inland, we had a safe, secure destination. In short, we were as fortunate as people could be in an unpredictable situation where nature shows its awesome destructive potential. And we live in a country with basically sound social and physical infrastructure. But it was unsettling, nonetheless, and we felt anxious and small in this mass movement of people before a huge storm. When we arrived home, we were drained and exhausted.
My experience, minor in the scope of our lives, and trivial in the eye of the universe, gave me renewed empathy for people dislocated, “turned upside down,” and traumatized by big events beyond their control: natural and human-caused. PTSD, a regular subject of my newsletter, BTP, is painful and disabling—affecting perhaps 20% to 25% of those with a vulnerability when they undergo severe trauma. People with PTSD have trouble restoring their equilibrium after civilian or military catastrophes. They are hurting and need help—from clinicians, social agencies, governments, and neuroscientists.
And when natural or man-made disasters strike—like wars, earthquakes, and hurricanes—the mentally ill are especially vulnerable. The assets I had—an intact marriage, access to information via expensive services, physical and mental health—are unavailable to most people with chronic psychiatric illnesses. Most often, they lack safe, secure, reliable resources. And their ability to make quick, rational decisions under stress is typically compromised. When major threats loom, let’s keep them in mind and look out for their needs.
-Alan J. Gelenberg, M.D.
Editor, Biological Therapies in Psychiatry
Shively/Tan Professor and Chair, Psychiatry, Penn State University
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry