For Hurricane Dorian Survivors, Emotional Distress Lingers
“I’m okay…” says Joe Tate, his statement trailing off like a question. “Well, my body’s strong,” he clarifies. “But my head and my heart…”
Those two things can be more complicated. But they can hurt the most.
We met Joe in McLeans Town, a small and tightly knit community our International Medical Corps emergency response team is assessing as it makes its way up the coast of Grand Bahama island following Hurricane Dorian. The Category 5 storm that slammed into the northwest Bahamas on September 1—and lingered over, with seeming vengeance, for more than 36 hours—destroyed Joe’s home, as well as the community his family has lived in for generations. We find him carefully sorting through the remnants of his life, trying to make sense of the brokenness.
International Medical Corps volunteer doctors check him out, find him in good health and give him a tetanus shot to protect him as he clears nails and glass from the debris. But as the doctors move on in search of physical conditions to treat, I linger with Joe. As it turns out, he needs someone to talk to.
I learn he stayed behind during the vicious storm, somehow surviving waves of more than 20 feet, winds topping 185 miles per hour, and a storm with the focused fury of a tornado. He points to a corner of his decimated home, where two battered chairs lean wearily.
“My cousin and his three children were sitting right there,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “They got washed away.” He shakes his head again and smiles sadly at me, shrugging before returning to the task at hand: picking up the pieces.
We find this kind of shock across the island, emanating from those who stagger out from apocalyptic landscapes. They climbed tall trees to survive the storm. They clung to rafters in attics. They struggled to stay afloat for hours on end, going for days without water, food, or sleep. They watched their homes and loved ones get washed away. They faced death head-on—and came out alive. Now, many like Joe are left with scars no one can see.
“Many individuals lost loved ones, saw their homes wash away, and experienced the intense fear of watching waters rise around them and sensing that their options for escape were disappearing,” says Mia Concordia, a clinical social worker who joined International Medical Corps’ emergency response team in Grand Bahama. “The loss affected the entire community, as even those who didn’t experience personal losses are grieving the impact to their neighbors, friends, colleagues, and hometowns.”
As a first responder for more than 35 years, International Medical Corps provides urgent medical relief to those on the front lines of disaster, disease, and conflict. At the same time, we’ve always taken a holistic approach to health care, recognizing that grief and trauma can be just as devastating to one’s well-being as any bodily wound. The innovative mental health services we provide to those living through complex humanitarian disasters helps to generate emotional resilience and facilitate the rebuilding of lives, families, and communities.
International Medical Corps has two mental health and psychosocial support specialists on Grand Bahama island to support local mental health efforts aimed at helping Joe and other survivors cope with their many losses. We are working with a local partner, Rand Memorial Hospital in Freeport, to support its community-based mental health efforts and—working from a mobile clinic we set up in High Rock—to provide services and facilitate hospital referrals where needed. We are also supporting the local mental health system by raising awareness of mental health needs and training health providers in psychological first aid.
The increase in climate-related disasters has risen the imperative for all communities to have access to frontline health workforce teams able to provide the full World Health Organization essential health service package, especially mental health services. The WHO estimates that one in every 10 people needs mental health care at any given time. Globally, there is an alarming shortage of providers for such care: low-income countries have as little as two mental health care workers per 100,000 people—compared with 70 in high-income countries. But the benefits of mental health care are enormous according to the WHO, with every dollar invested in scaling up treatment for common mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, leading to a return of $4 in better health and productivity.
This World Mental Health Day, we honor the survivors of Hurricane Dorian and others suffering across the globe, as well as the people on the front lines providing much needed mental health services. This is not a day only to destigmatize and provide education about mental health—it’s also an acknowledgment that so many of us carry heartache and pain that can’t be cured with gauze or stitches. And everyone who needs mental health services should have access to skilled and supported frontline health workers who can help them. As the Bahamas works to rebuild, and as we provide services to women, men, and children around the world, we remain committed to the kind of healing that leads to hope, revival, and long-term resilience.
International Medical Corps is a member of the Frontline Health Workers Coalition. Among the first on the ground following Hurricane Dorian, working closely with the Bahamian Ministry of Health and the Pan American Health Organization, International Medical Corps has deployed a total of 76 health care professionals and supporting staff to provide assistance to survivors. A preeminent First Responder for more than 35 years, International Medical Corps provides emergency relief to those struck by disaster, no matter where they are, no matter what the conditions, working with them to recover, rebuild and gain the skills and tools required for self-reliance. Learn more and support Hurricane Dorian survivors at www.internationalmedicalcorps.org.