Sep. 1, 1998 By Corey Stevens
GAINESVILLE, Fla.---El Nino will long be remembered for this year's onslaught of natural disasters across the nation. From coast to coast, wildfires blazed out of control, deadly tornadoes fell from the sky, flood waters rolled over plains and droughts dried farmlands. All this, and the height of hurricane season looms.
But it takes time for Mother Nature's full effects to hit home. Once the physical damage is cleared, layers of emotional devastation may start to surface, University of Florida psychologists cautioned during a national videoconference Aug. 12. The "Are You Ready? Awareness for Preparedness" conference links emergency management personal and cooperative extension services agents across the nation with UF's Cooperative Extension Services' resources.
"People still need help after the shelters close. The effects of a natural disaster are very long lasting. It can cause anxiety and stress disorders so that, even years later, survivors may experience symptoms" said UF psychologist Garrett Evans.
UF psychologists are taking their Disaster Mental Health Team into communities to help residents deal with the psychological effects when disaster hits. They also have assisted cooperative extension agents outside the state in dealing with disaster mental health issues.
Last year, Evans and colleague Sam Sears, both assistant professors in the department of clinical and health psychology at UF' s College of Health Professions, worked with North Dakota extension agents to provide behavioral health services to victims of the region' s floods and blizzards.
This year, the team counseled victims of Florida's tornadoes and wildfires. In addition, they educate and train disaster relief workers and other professionals in contact with victims in specific crisis techniques to assist victims in their mental health needs. Evans and Sears, who both hold joint appointments with the department of family, youth and community services at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said they predict work on their home front isn't t over yet with the full effects of drought and hurricane season still unknown.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service estimates $1.83 million in livestock and crops will be lost because of drought in 32 western and northern Florida counties, nearly half the state. For farmers, agricultural-related businesses and other local residents, that could lead to farm foreclosure and lost income - prime conditions for the genesis of depression, anxiety, abuse and violence, said Evans.
The program has caught the attention of some federal legislators, who are hoping to fund a national rural behavioral health center modeled after UF's effort. Care would be coordinated through state agriculture cooperative extension services, as it is in Florida.
Sharon Anderson, director of North Dakota State University Extension Services, said working with UF's Disaster Mental Health Team better prepared her staff to help the community get past the initial shock and move on with their lives.
"Extension agents are a quick and effective way to share information with professionals who have more experience in certain areas," she said.
The team was created after Hurricane Andrew struck the Homestead, Fla. area in 1992 and is part of UF's Rural Psychology Program, which addresses ongoing mental health needs in rural communities underserved by psychological and behavioral health-care professionals. In rural areas, natural disasters have a proportionately greater impact because there are fewer mental health professionals and resources to help people, said Sears.
Sears and Evans also are affiliated with the North Florida Area Health Education Center, a federal program designed to recruit community-based health-care professionals for rural and medically underserved areas.
"The benefits of a program like UF's, in which the disaster mental health team is part of a rural behavioral health program, is that the infrastructure is already established to assist when a disaster occurs," said Gil Hill, director for the office of rural health at the American Psychology Association.
UF's "go-team" consists of faculty, interns and graduate students trained to respond to disaster. They work in conjunction with the local chapter of the American Red Cross and the Florida Psychological Association to coordinate services throughout affected areas.
"Our work starts after people's immediate needs have been met and disaster response agencies like FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) have left. That is when community focus becomes important. We help to coordinate the efforts of community agencies that may not have interacted if there wasn't t a disaster," said Evans.
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