Along the Gulf Coast, mental health suffers even after the floodwaters recede
Jill Alexander noticed her parents’ health slipping before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and southeast Texas in August 2017.
They were both in their mid-70s. Her mother was struggling with dementia and recovering from two back surgeries. Her father had early onset Alzheimer’s. Both refused to leave their house in Beaumont ahead of the storm — until it was too late.
A foot and a half of water was soon inside. Finally, as the water rose, the Cajun Navy, the volunteer evacuation group, rescued them in a canoe.
Alexander’s parents’ mental decline was drastic from there on, she remembers. Her father would leave to run an errand only to call shortly after and tell them he couldn’t remember the directions back. Her mother’s memory became increasingly hazy.
She opted to move them to assisted living. Six months later, they were back in their house, in working order, with caregivers. But her father’s condition worsened. Her mother was diagnosed with a UTI infection. She’d never get out of bed again.
Two years later, Alexander buried her parents a month apart.
She blames the stress that Harvey brought. “It was a dramatic change,” she says, “because of the trauma of their home getting messed up, being displaced.”
Alexander isn’t alone. The Texas Flood Registry based at Rice University has collected 20,000 responses to surveys to understand the range of impacts from the disasters the region has been repeatedly battered with since Harvey. Nearly 4,000 respondents have said they have experienced behavioral changes, including anxiety, depression, memory loss and sleep problems. Nearly all of those, 92 percent, said it started with Harvey. “Now, you start to get nervous with that first intense rainfall,” Joally Canales, the community outreach coordinator for the registry, says.
Canales says a survey sent out after Tropical Storm Imelda in September 2019, two years after Harvey, confirmed how that threat made respondents feel “on edge.” Many who call the Gulf Coast home remain teetered there between recovery from past disasters and anticipation of the next one.
They’re not alone, either. A 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 68 percent of adults say they are experiencing at least some “eco-anxiety,” or worry about the impacts a changing climate might have. On top of that, the U.S. is mired in a larger mental health crisis.
Not only is access to care an issue, as some neighborhoods lack even pharmacies to fill prescriptions, let alone mental health providers, the pandemic has piled on. A new report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adults with symptoms of anxiety or depressive order increased to more than 41 percent between August 2020 and February 2021.
Much of the crisis is due to uncertainty, says Dr. Sabrina Helm, a researcher at the University of Arizona who studies mental health and climate change. “The worse it gets, the more we will experience these mental health effects, and the more people will be severely affected by this constant worry, because it’s not going away,” she says. Unless people who are susceptible to that type of worry can find a proactive coping mechanism, she continues, “then it’s likely that you fall into this hole of worry and thinking everything’s so hopeless. That’s a difficult point to be in.”
Bishop Joe Banks, the minister at the Living Word Christian Center in Lake Charles, Louisiana, knows what that can feel like. He helped lead his congregation through Hurricanes Laura and Delta, which made landfall within weeks of each other late last year. Thousands lacked electricity and running water for months, and many across the city’s largely working-class population were left with no home at all.
“It’s been very, very challenging and disturbing for a lot of people,” Banks says. His job as a faith leader is to step in for others. Seeing the need after the storms, the Living Word Christian Center started a counseling service.
“It wasn’t just spiritual counseling,” Bank says. “It was really psychological counseling –– encouragement, getting people out of depression. We found a lot of people turning to prescription drugs. People drank more and picked up bad habits like smoking, just trying to put a Band-Aid over a big wound.”
It wasn’t easy on Banks himself. The church had more than a million dollars in damage after Laura. He found himself leaning on members, as they did with him and his wife. If not for daily phone calls from his family and ministry brethren to ask about how they were faring, he says he’s not sure how he would have gotten this far.
Banks’ and Alexander’s stories aren’t uncommon along the Gulf Coast and other parts of the south vulnerable to storms being made more unpredictable by a changing climate. The only problem: It’s unclear how long residents can be counted on to fend for themselves and keep saving each other.
President Joe Biden’s administration centers on building a climate-ready nation, but many of the plan’s projects are years in the making. The climate is changing faster than our infrastructure.
This spring, the start of hurricane season has even been moved up.
Alexander says she finds a glimmer of hope in the idea that her parents are no longer in pain. She’d like to think they’re back to their old selves, wherever they might be. But she remembers the pleas she made to get them to leave before Harvey, which she believes hastened their deaths. Like many others, they told her, “We’ve lived here all our life. It’s never flooded here. It’ll be OK.”
Will it? The consequences of climate inaction are visible every year, now, in the images of flooded homes, stripped to the studs, but the invisible harms people carry in their hearts don’t go away just because the water has. Mental health issues can grow like mold behind drywall. They demand a serious, thoughtful response, so that people all along the Gulf Coast can take a long-awaited exhale.
Peters is freelance writer living in New Orleans. His work has appeared in Scalawag, Rolling Stone, Reason and the Texas Observer. You can find him on Twitter @hipxander.
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