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Substance abuse among survivors of multiple disasters

Many in the region were barely getting by. Then the disaster hit. Now they have nothing: keepsakes, identification and home gone, neighbors and pets dead, physical and mental health ravaged seemingly in an instant.

Long after federal and even international relief are done dropping provisions – if at all – and a few years after rebuilding some semblance of a life – natural disaster or violence shoots all progress to smithereens. If they were nobody, with nothing before, who would blame the victim of multiple catastrophes for substance abuse or suicide ideation?

Anything to forget

Abubakar Mala was forced to flee from his hometown after a raid by the rebel group Boko Haram. The terrorist fighters murdered his parents and sisters. His life and career were completely obliterated.

“I was not a drug addict before; I had a flourishing business in Gamboru where I [made] good money … Unfortunately, everything was taken away from me, including all my family. What do you expect me to be doing; how do you think I can forget [these] memories; to me, life means nothing. I need to forget the memory of the sad event and that is only possible through the taking of drugs.”

Boko Haram has been ranked as the world’s deadliest terrorist group; killing and raping its way through parts of Africa. Mala likely has not seen the end of its horrific impacts on his people.

The cumulative adversity strikes the same spots repeatedly here at home as well. Consider Louisiana residents.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the levees breaking ambushed and displaced more than a million people – homes razed, businesses annihilated. In 2010, the BP oil spill again overwhelmed the Gulf Coast region. In addition to destroying fishing businesses, the psychological trauma of the BP oil spill for those fisherman families on the coastline was pervasive; and health effects in children and adults was brutally real. Just this year, flooding in Louisiana was the worst since Hurricane Katrina.

In Chapter 4 of the book “Traumatic Stress and Long-term Recovery,” researchers looked at the “pileup effect after a decade of disasters.”

Studies on survivors of multiple catastrophes

Gulf Coast fishers and their families gave tragic insight into lives of unrelenting catastrophic events.

As one man laments, “It ruined my lifestyle. Getting compensated is not the same as not having it happen to you at all. Katrina made everybody move and now the storm’s finishing us off.”

Researchers found, over time, the pileup of normative events and abnormal crises – including losses of home, property, industry and resources to cope with environmental stressors –exacerbated distress, for a time.

The ironic ray of hope? Authors point to a 2012 study examining lifetime cumulative adversity in middle-aged Israelis that found, paradoxically, “those who experienced two or less adverse life events also reported lower well-being (as gauged by quality of life and optimism/hope) than those who experienced three adverse life events.”

A Better Way to a Better Life

The understandable rub in these scenarios of multiple catastrophes is that there don’t seem to be equally powerful tools to counter the effects of repeated disasters. Financial aid, even benevolent gifts are typically singular acts of assistance, similar to a Band-Aid on a gushing wound.

Victims of multiple catastrophes need a full, long-term package for support and healing beyond the shallow highs and torturous lows of substance abuse.

As discussed in a previous article, new treatments have recently been discovered to assuage the aftershocks of trauma. Repurposing nitrous oxide for post-disaster administration has shown promise. “To the degree that a person feels disconnected from a traumatic event correlates to the intensity of disturbing intrusive memories and possibly post-traumatic stress.”

Between the debilitating bouts of depression and paralyzing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, many survivors experience an angst they feel they should’ve done something in the madness or they have an urgency to do something now, to distract from negative emotions. Like Mala said, “What do you expect me to be doing … How can I forget …?”

Sovereign Health in Texas is a flagship in the Gulf Coast for holistic treatment of substance abuse and co-occurring addiction and mental health issues. We provide the full package: a safe haven of detox and residential treatment, cognitive therapies to restore the mind and alternative tools for emotional healing.

About the author

Sovereign Health Staff Writer Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing and editing; writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; radio production; and on-camera reporting. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at   

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