On Wednesday evening, Senior Staff Writer Charlotte Slovin attended “Building Emotional Resilience in the Age of Disasters and COVID-19,” a panel discussion hosted by the Columbia Journalism School and the Center for Public Integrity. The event focused on perseverance and the mental health implications of natural disasters.

In a year of seemingly compounding stressors and an era of increasing natural disasters, it’s important to ask ourselves “how do we get through this?” What do we do when we are dealing with trauma and stress from disasters, knowing that another may just be around the corner? On Wednesday night, panelists at the event Building Emotional Resilience in the Age of Disasters and COVID-19, co-hosted by Columbia Journalism School and the Center for Public Integrity, worked to answer just that.

The event began with a brief conversation between Kristen Lombardi, editor of the Columbia Journalism Investigation program, and Jamie Smith Hopkins, the Senior Reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. The two spoke about the joint investigation CJI and CPI published in August on the mental health consequences of mounting natural disasters in the United States and the lack of adequate federal response. Their findings prompted Wednesday night’s event, as they wanted to create a space to discuss one’s mental health “moving forward…when these disasters are most likely to keep happening.”

The evening’s panelists were Hilton Kelley, community advocate and repeated hurricane survivor in Port Arthur, Texas, and recipient of the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize, and Dr. Annelle Primm, chair of All Healers Mental Health Alliance, a group using volunteers to fill the gaps in government response to disaster-struck communities of color. The third panelist, Dr. Irwin Redlener, a senior research scholar with Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, could not attend due to technical difficulties.

When asked by Jamie Smith Hopkins about what mental states we should watch out for in ourselves and others post-disaster, Dr. Primm distinguished between the long term and short term. Short-term, immediate emotional responses, such as stress, feelings of anxiety, sadness (especially related to loss), as well as difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and trouble concentrating, are natural responses to disaster as people process the events that they have just been through. These feelings only become problematic when they persist for longer periods of time. Dr. Primm suggested, regardless of the accessibility of mental health resources, to create and maintain a routine to try and regain a sense of control over one’s life.

That said, as a community psychiatry expert, Dr. Primm emphasized the importance of locating mental health resources. Dr. Primm noted her work with a variety of different community, psychiatric, and faith leaders, as well as other health advocates, on finding ways to facilitate culturally appropriate mental health needs of those affected by disasters. She recognized the importance of community-specific assistance, as each city, town, and neighborhood will have a different experience–and different response–to disaster. Dr. Primm applauded the work of the National Association of Black Social Workers for setting up spaces at local churches in disaster-stricken towns to educate residents on resources and letting them share their stories.

Here, Kelley brought up the persistent barriers to receiving mental health care, even when it is accessible. Speaking from his own experience living in the historically Black neighborhood of Port Arthur, Kelley has seen people put mental health on the backburner mainly due to financial concerns. He stated that “the economics are… [what] keep us at bay. The money spent speaking to a psychiatrist can be used for rent.” Dr. Primm added that while pro bono services do exist and that disaster-crisis hotlines are available, these resources tend to be of lower quality or end up being inaccessible, especially in rural communities.

This wariness to spend money and time on mental health services ends up being justified by the cultural stigma around seeking assistance in the first place. Kelley, along with Dr. Primm, stated that willingness and pride to accept mental health resources are increasing, but “some people [still] don’t want to be seen as ‘crazy’.” Dr. Primm mentioned that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought more attention to mental health and its importance than ever before. Over the last couple of months, access to therapy via telehealth has expanded, and with it people’s willingness to use mental health resources, as they now allow for privacy in a way that a community clinic could not. She hopes that this normalization of telehealth helps to bypass the stigma that stops so many people from seeking assistance.

As a journalism school event, Jamie Smith Hopkins asked the panelists what they believed the best method of coverage of impacted communities was, as coverage can have a large impact on a community’s ability to get federal support. Both Kelley and Dr. Primm stressed the importance of understanding the underlying conditions of why certain communities are hit harder than others. They spoke about the line that reporting walks between superficial coverage and actual care, and for journalists not to “be so quick to leave” and “forget about them,” but engage in the community. Dr. Primm advocated for speaking with locals as they “have the knowledge to help understand the environment that has lead to the particular situation.” Kelley added to this saying that it is important to remember that while there is value in coverage, sometimes those directly impacted view coverage as less important than their immediate wellbeing.

With climate change bringing more consistent and extreme weather conditions, disaster is guaranteed to happen. Living through and with disaster is an experience no one wants to have, but hearing the first-hand experience of those who persevere through catastrophes like Hilton Kelley and learning the stress-mitigation tools and resources from Dr. Primm assures us that when disaster strikes, we can make it through.

Wednesday night’s discussion was recorded. You can find it here.

City Resilience via Flickr