Mental Health Expertise Meets Sandbags in Helping Communities Build Climate Resilience
It was judicious use of mental health expertise, along with many, many sandbags, that enabled Fargo, North Dakota to weather the challenges of the epic 2009 Red River flood.
That was one of the experiences that pointed to a basic precondition for building communities’ ability to face the climate emergency: Recognizing climate change as a profound threat to mental health, responding with messages of “hopeful realism” and ongoing compassion, particularly for older adults and children, and helping communities acquire the psychological and social resilience to cope.
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What Fargo community leaders understood in advance was that “disasters don’t just cause physical damage; they can leave communities struggling mentally and emotionally, as well,” writes CityLab, in a post republished in Canada by National Observer. “If a community can’t stand on its own two feet psychologically, all the work on having stronger buildings isn’t going to get you anywhere,” said Gerald Galloway, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland Center for Disaster Resilience.
Fargo got it right, thanks to a community-based team that organized itself around a few core resilience-building principles before the floodwaters hit.
Psychiatrist and local resident Andy McLean, medical director for the state department of health and human services, stressed the value of communicating “hopeful realism”, by “recognizing that there was danger ahead, but stressing confidence in preparations.” That mix of candour and confidence helped the various civic groups involved in key decisions to secure public trust, McLean said.
“Daily televised briefings kept citizens updated on preparations, and behavioral health professionals like McLean gave advice in those briefings on how people could prepare emotionally,” CityLab states. Giving citizens the opportunity to “act with purpose” by doing things like filling sandbags, was also critical. “A study conducted after the flood showed that people who spent time volunteering had fewer risk factors for suicide, as it made residents feel like they belonged and were less of a burden to the community.”
Also critical to Fargo’s success during the 2009 flood disaster was the role the city’s many organizations played in strengthening the connectedness among communities. A higher level of cohesion before and during disasters helps buffer citizens against mental health problems in their aftermath, said McLean.
And it’s a positive feedback loop, he added. “Resilient individuals and families, in turn, likely help shore up resilient communities, which provide the social networks that in turn encourage individual resilience.”
The post calls on civic leaders to ensure that all citizens benefit from resilience-building efforts, especially those who are unlikely to proactively reach out, like the poor or the elderly. “Working closely with and directing support services for vulnerable groups, then, is an important element of resilience work,” CityLab states. People with pre-existing mental health conditions are likely to be particularly vulnerable, as are the very young.
“Children are particularly affected by disasters,” the publication writes. “In one set of kids who evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, for example, over half exhibited mental health symptoms, and more than 30% had clinically significant [post-traumatic stress disorder] or depression. Children affected by bushfires in Australia had worse academic progress over the next few years than those who weren’t affected, one study of nearly 25,000 children found.” (After Fort McMurray, Alberta went through the wildfire known as The Beast, one-third of the community’s high schoolers showed signs of PTSD.)
The U.S. branch of Save the Children tries to build resilience by giving kids “a basic understanding of what could happen, and what safe places and people are,” Director Sarah Thompson told CityLab. “Even without knowing the nitty-gritty, it helps them feel like they’re more in control. It helps them feel like they can be safe.”