How are you doing? Questions to avoid lasting trauma after tornadoes

Panic. Fear. Anxiety. Exhaustion. It's been one week since tornadoes devastated parts of Ottawa-Gatineau, but for some those emotions linger still.

Watch for lingering symptoms to prevent long-term mental health injury

A man and woman embrace as they survey damage at a home in Gatineau, Que., on Sunday. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Panic. Fear. Anxiety. Exhaustion.

It's been one week since tornadoes devastated parts of Ottawa-Gatineau, but for some those emotions linger still.

Mental health professionals say they're perfectly normal reactions to a disaster, but worry if they're allowed to fester they could result in longer-term conditions including panic disorders, post-traumatic stress and depression.

In Dunrobin, one of the Ottawa neighbourhoods hardest hit by the storm, social workers and other professionals with the provincially coordinated emergency medical assistance team (EMAT) are offering counselling services to those affected. An identical team is operating out of the Nepean Sportsplex.

Displaced families lining up for aid can also ask to speak to counsellors about how to deal with the emotional toll the tornadoes have taken.

Here's some of their advice.

Kari Van Camp, left, a nurse practitioner from Toronto, and Ralph Vander Hoek, right, the lead counsellor with the emergency medical assistance team deployed to Ottawa to help people recover from the tornadoes that struck the region last week. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Normal people, extraordinary situation

"Remember, you're a normal person in an extraordinary situation," said Ralph Vander Hoek, lead counsellor with EMAT. "There's lots of different types of reactions — anxiety, fear, difficulty sleeping, grief — these are normal."

"Survivor guilt" can also become an emotional burden, Vander Hoek said. 

"When you see your neighbour's home destroyed and yours is fine, that's hard on folks."

Symptoms to watch for

Crying, irritability, panic attacks and difficulty sleeping are all symptoms to keep an eye on, according to Kari Van Camp, a nurse practitioner on loan from Toronto.

A lot of people are not sleeping well right now.- Kari Van Camp, nurse practitioner

Lack of sleep in these extraordinary circumstances can sometimes bring on a longer-term injury, Van Camp said. 

"You're going through stress and your mind is hyper-vigilant and replaying things in your head, so a lot of people are not sleeping well right now," she said. "That's a really big concern because ... you're not taking care of yourself, and that [could develop into] things like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression."

'Conspiracy of silence'

Families are sometimes reluctant to address difficult subjects with a loved one because they don't want to upset that person, Vander Hoek said.

He calls that a "conspiracy of silence" that unwittingly makes matters worse.  

Make sure you're talking things out, Van Camp agreed. "It's normal to be grieving and normal to be feeling these things, but you really need to talk about it because when you hold it in, that's when people are at risk of getting sick in the long term."

Make sure the kids are alright

Children may have seen things that are hard to get out of their heads, whether they witnessed the violence of the storm itself or simply saw the destruction it left in its wake.

What they need is stability, routine and predictability in their lives.- Ralph Vander Hoek, EMAT counsellor

Watch out for kids who are having trouble sleeping, experiencing nightmares, not eating, acting fearful, clinging to their parents or regressing to bed-wetting. 

"Talk to them and normalize their feelings," Van Camp advised. 

It also helps to get kids back to their old routines, Vander Hoek said. "If you go to the rink on Saturday, go to the rink on Saturday. If you have pizza Friday nights, do that. What they need is stability, routine and predictability in their lives, especially after a trauma like this."

Seek help if symptoms persist

It's never too early to seek the help of a professional, but Vander Hoek and Van Camp suggest if symptoms persist beyond a few weeks, people should ask for guidance on how to avoid a longer-term mental health injury. 

Ralph Vander Hoek and Kari Van Camp have been helping residents deal with the mental health trauma caused by last week's tornadoes. 1:01