Help A Friend
What is a traumatic event?
If your friend has gone through a natural disaster, they may be hearing people talking about the event as a “traumatic event”. Traumatic events cause physical, emotional, psychological distress or harm. The word trauma comes from a Greek word meaning “wound”.
Not everyone who experienced the natural disaster will be affected by trauma. It depends on how each person understands what happened and how scared/threatened they were at the time of the event.
If your friend’s experience of the natural disaster was traumatic, the effects can be upsetting and can muck things up and get in the way of daily life for them.
Is what they are feeling normal?
In the first few weeks after a natural disaster, most people will experience some emotional reactions. How your friend is feeling might depend on where they were when the disaster happened, what they saw, and how it’s changed things for them. They may still be cleaning up, need to rebuild a new home, or have to go to a new school. They might not even live in the area that was affected; though they may still feel these things. Their mum and dad could be pretty worried about things too.
Common reactions after a natural disaster
In the first few weeks after the natural disaster, it’s really normal to feel:
- worried that the natural disaster might happen again
- sad for the people or things they have lost
- angry or confused because it’s so unfair, but there’s no one to blame
- in denial: your friend may not want to think about what happened. It’s ok to distract them but they also will benefit from taking some time to think about what has happened and how they are going.
- guilty because of something they did or didn’t do at the time, or they might just feel bad about themselves
- shocked: they may feel like things are happening slowly and this feeling may come and go over a few weeks
Other emotions they might experience (which are normal in the first few weeks too)
- your friend might start to spend less time with friends and family
- they might feel a bit cranky as they try to work out what’s going on for them
- some young people use alcohol or drugs (but this won’t be helpful)
- it might be hard for them to get thoughts of the disaster out of their head
- they might have trouble sleeping (hard to get to sleep, or stay asleep)
- their appetite might change (eating more, or less than normal)
Even though these reactions are pretty common, and normal in the first few weeks after a disaster, everyone will react differently. Really strong emotions and reactions might take some weeks to settle for most people, and for some people it might take weeks, or months to get better. It would be good for your friend to talk to mum and dad, or your teacher, or a professional (GP, school counsellor) about what’s going on for them.
There are many ways people respond to a very stressful event like a natural disaster
- a stressful time but cope well overall
- some emotional reactions (see common reactions) but feel better after 1-4 weeks
- experience several emotional reactions (see common reactions) but improve over 1-2 months
- experience strong emotional reactions (see common reactions) that are causing problems, and difficult to manage after several months (see when should I get help for a friend)
What you can do if your friend is struggling
- you can be there to listen (whatever they are feeling): this can be really helpful
- you can encourage them to do practical things (doing things that are useful like getting enough sleep and less of the things that aren’t helping eg. Getting drunk)
- you can encourage them to get some extra help
To be a good friend you need to look after yourself too!
- put some limits around how much time you spend supporting friends
- make sure you have some support for you, like friends and family
Ideas to help your friend
Here are some practical tips you can share with your friend:
Emotionally and socially
- talk to your friends and family
- give yourself permission to be upset. Also give yourself permission to laugh, sometimes humour can help!
- write in a journal / diary
- spend time with your pets
- stay connected with the things you love to do: sports team, social group, friends
- do things to help you relax: take a bath, yoga, listen to music, or do some art
- exercise: walking, jogging, cycling, swimming
- stretch or have a massage
- eat a balanced diet and maintain a sleep routine as much as possible
- avoid stimulants like coffee, sugar or nicotine
When should I get help for my friend?
Although there are many different reactions that are normal in the first few weeks to months after a natural disaster, if the reactions continue over time without help, it may increase the risk of developing a mental health problem like
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Other Anxiety Disorders
- Problems with Alcohol and/or Drugs
For more information on these conditions, see www.youthbeyondblue.com or call the beyondblue info line 1300 22 4636. Also services like Adolescent Drug and Alcohol Withdrawal Service (this is a Queensland based service) could provide the support needed to help with the recovery process.
Anyone can have reactions after a natural disaster; whether they:
- experienced it directly,
- lost a friend or family member,
- had property damaged or lost, or
- were out of the area and heard about it on the news or through other media.
Reactions are common, but if the reactions are still happening one month after the natural disaster, your friend may need to seek some professional help.
There are some warning signs to look for in your friend that may indicate things aren’t going so well.
If someone you know experiences any of the following symptoms at any time, they should seek professional help (GP, Counsellor, Parent or Family member):
- high distress levels that get in the way of being able to do the things they need to do (go to school, work, spend time with friends)
- feeling overwhelmed by worry for no obvious reason
- panic symptoms: increased heart rate, breathlessness, shakiness, dizziness and a sudden urge to go to the toilet
- avoiding things that bring back memories of what happened- so much so it gets in the way of having to do day to day tasks
- excessive guilt about things they you could or couldn’t do
- loss of hope or interest in the future
- thoughts of ending one’s life or self-harming
Where can I get help?
As a general rule it is a good idea for you to seek help for your friend or tell someone (a trusted adult, family member) about your worries if you think they are not coping or if they are finding things hard since the disaster.
They should speak to a health professional if:
- their problems / reactions seem severe
- the emotional reactions are lasting a long time (more than one month)
- they're finding it difficult to do their day to day activities or get along with family and friends
Your friend can speak to their parent/ guardian / teacher who can assist them to get help from: