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Psychological recovery takes time

Recovery from Christchurch earthquake

*Psychological recovery takes time, says Kiwi quake expert*

It will take longer to recover psychologically than materially from the Christchurch earthquake, says a disaster specialist who has worked with earthquake survivors in China. “It is easier to pick up the pieces physically and financially than it is to fully recover from the emotional and mental impact of a devastating earthquake”, says Keith Lyons, a former advisor to the Canterbury and Wellington regional councils.

Lyons, who grew up in Christchurch and studied psychology at Canterbury University, says while most Cantabrians escaped injury, there is still an emotional toll which will take time to deal with. “The quake that hit Canterbury was sudden, overwhelming and largely unexpected. When the earth literally moves under your feet, it is out of your control, and it shakes up your whole world. You can't do anything about the quake, but you can do something about how you and those around you cope with the event. Emotional recovery is just as important as rebuilding home or healing cuts and bruises.”

He says earthquake victims are likely to experience both shock and numbness. “It is quite normal to feel stunned as well as numb after the event, and denying the quake happened is one way of self-protection. Over the next few weeks and months many people will feel the mental and emotional strain, as well as notice their thoughts and behaviour are affected by the trauma. It is usual for survivors to feel irritable , anxious, stressed out and even depressed. Each person responds differently, because there is no set way of coping with such a life-shaking event. Studies indicate that men assume more visible decision-making roles, while women tend to be the invisible care-givers.”

Lyons says research suggests that children, the elderly and dependent adults are the most vulnerable following an earthquake, but relief workers and ‘heroes’ can also experience delayed reactions to the disaster. “I think it's important that children and the elderly are given assurance from their families and neighbours that they are safe, because they can often be disoriented by the event. It is normal for children to be afraid that another uncontrollable quake will hit and their family might be injured or killed. It's probably a good idea to limit their exposure to the sights and sounds of the quake replayed on television.”

Recovering from the quake won’t happen overnight, he says. “In disaster recovery we talk about the three T’s – talk, tears and time. It helps for survivors to talk with friends and loved ones about their thoughts and feelings. Talk is healing and so are tears as we grieve from our loss. Don't be afraid to ask for help. The third element is time, and over time victims will be able to look back at the challenges they overcame to appreciate their courage, endurance and resourcefulness and the kindness of others. To the three T’s I’d add another: tea. A good cup of Dilmah tea and a chocolate chip biscuit shared with others can do wonders for mind, body and soul.”

He says its vital for individuals, families, workplaces and schools to quickly return to normal. “The healing process is helped by re-establishing personal and family eating, sleeping, exercise, leisure and work routines, and staying connected with familiar people and places.”

Lyons was one of the first foreigners to arrive in the south-west China town of Lijiang following a huge earthquake in 1996, which left 300,000 homeless, 86,000 houses collapsed and 309 people dead. He set up the Lijiang Earthquake Relief Project with Red Cross, and says the earthquake proved to be a catalyst for the town’s development. “Many high-rise concrete buildings in the old town were torn down and replaced with traditional-style dwellings, and later the ancient city gained UNESCO World Heritage status. The Lijiang quake strengthened the community spirit and enabled a greater appreciation of what was important and unique about the place.”

There is a message from Lijiang and other quake-hit places, says Lyons. “An earthquake is a communal event which forces survivors to look at the world and their lives in new and different ways. To the people of Canterbury there are two things they should know. First, that it is OK to feel the normal range of emotions, from shock and confusion to anger and helplessness following a disaster. Second, we know that people are strong and resilient, and by continuing on with their lives, over time, they do recover.”

Natural disasters serve as reminders about the fragility of life, and Lyons believes Cantabrians have the opportunity to change how they live. “Maybe the quake will help people re-discover the importance of community as well as attend to the non-material aspects of their lives. The quake is also a wake-up call for those complacent about disaster preparedness, and I hope now every household has a plan, a kit with essential supplies, and new knowledge of what to do in the event of a natural disaster.”

He says Christchurch residents were lucky to survive the large quake without the loss of life. “The amazing thing about the Christchurch quake was that even though it was strong in magnitude, no one died. The danger now is what we call the 'second disaster', where survivors have to deal with rules, red tape, delays and disappointments when trying to get help with housing, financial, clean-up and medical needs from government agencies and insurance companies.”

*Keith Lyons is a studied psychology and journalism at Canterbury and Waikato universities, and in 1996 set up the Lijiang Earthquake Relief with Red Cross following a huge earthquake in south-west China's Yunnan province. He is a former communications advisor to the Canterbury and Wellington regional councils. He grew up in Christchurch (1976-1995) and currently lives in Lijiang, Yunnan, China. *

Ends

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