What Doesn’t Kill You… Sur­viv­ing Dis­as­ters May Stim­u­late Per­sonal Growth

Sur­viv­ing Dis­as­ters May Stim­u­late Per­sonal Growth

Trillions - - In This Issue -

Re­mem­ber the old say­ing “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Re­searchers are find­ing out that this may ac­tu­ally be true.

On May 22, 2011, a cat­a­strophic tor­nado, rated EF-5 on the En­hanced Fu­jita tor­nado in­ten­sity scale, blasted into Jo­plin, Mo. After it touched down, it stayed on the ground for ap­prox­i­mately 38 min­utes and trav­eled 22.1 miles. While it was there, its winds caused 161 deaths, ap­prox­i­mately 1,150 in­juries and dam­age to 553 busi­ness struc­tures and nearly 7,500 res­i­den­tial struc­tures, over 3,000 of which suf­fered crit­i­cal dam­age or were com­pletely de­stroyed. Fi­nan­cial losses were es­ti­mated at the time at $3 bil­lion.

It was the dead­li­est sin­gle tor­nado on record in the United States.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the af­ter­math of such a dis­as­ter – just as oth­ers are now see­ing in par­al­lel in post-hur­ri­cane Maria Puerto Rico – comes with great post-trau­matic stress among the survivors.

Now, based on just-pub­lished stud­ies con­ducted by the Dis­as­ter and Com­mu­nity Cri­sis Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri (MU), there is ap­par­ently one bright light that has been dis­cov­ered amid all that suf­fer­ing. The re­searchers found that those survivors also have the po­ten­tial to ex­pe­ri­ence pos­i­tive per­sonal growth and change as they work through the post­trau­matic stress.

As Jen­nifer First, a doc­toral can­di­date in the MU School of So­cial Work and dis­as­ter men­tal health pro­gram man­ager with the Dis­as­ter and Com­mu­nity Cri­sis Cen­ter, said, “When dis­as­ters oc­cur, men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als – com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ers, so­cial work­ers, case man­agers and coun­selors – of­ten work in part­ner­ship with lo­cal, state and fed­eral or­ga­ni­za­tions to re­spond.” Many of those who come to help of­ten ex­pect to see – and there­fore some­times only do see – the down­side of the tragedies. First added: “It is im­por­tant that these pro­fes­sion­als un­der­stand that the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of trauma can co­ex­ist with pos­i­tive per­cep­tions of growth. In fact, post-trau­matic stress may drive a search for mean­ing fol­low­ing a dis­as­ter.”

Ear­lier stud­ies had shown that fac­tors such as how peo­ple re­late to one an­other and their abil­ity to ap­pre­ci­ate life, flex­i­bil­ity in un­der­stand­ing fu­ture pos­si­bil­i­ties, per­sonal strength and even per­spec­tive on spir­i­tual change are all im­por­tant in how they de­velop after ma­jor trau­matic shocks of this kind.

To look at this fur­ther, in the Jo­plin case, re­searchers from MU, part­ner­ing with a Jo­plin com­mu­nity men­tal health part­ner, looked at all the above is­sues in a

sam­pling of 438 adult survivors from the Jo­plin tor­nado. To un­der­stand the survivors’ per­sonal growth, the eval­u­a­tion took place two and a half years after the catas­tro­phe. The survivors were asked to com­ment about how they had been per­son­ally af­fected by the tor­nado, if and how they talked about the tor­nado with peo­ple they knew and about their spe­cific post­trau­matic stress symp­toms.

Vicky Mieseler, chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer of the Ozark Cen­ter in Jo­plin, led the com­mu­nity men­tal health re­sponse to the tor­nado and was part of the team in­volved in the study. She pointed out, “We found that more com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­enced the tor­nado and their fam­i­lies, friends and neigh­bors was re­lated to more post-trau­matic growth among survivors.” Among other things, this pro­vided the im­por­tant “take­away” from this spe­cific event: that “men­tal health providers can help foster growth by pro­mot­ing con­nec­tions and com­mu­ni­ca­tion among survivors in long-term, post-dis­as­ter com­mu­ni­ties.”

Dr. Chance Ea­ton, a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Tril­lions, who has an ex­ten­sive back­ground in the field of learn­ing and or­ga­ni­za­tional de­vel­op­ment, saw syn­er­gies be­tween these find­ings and his own analy­ses of how peo­ple work to­gether – both dur­ing a cri­sis and in their growth af­ter­wards. After read­ing about the re­sults of this study, he made the fol­low­ing ob­ser­va­tion:

“Our species is com­mu­nal in na­ture; we have de­pended on one an­other for sur­vival and sup­port since the be­gin­ning. Though our day-to-day ac­tiv­i­ties are dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent than our an­ces­tors’, our need for one an­other con­tin­ues to be ex­pressed through our ge­netic code. We see proof of this hu­man bond through our spir­i­tual as­sem­blies, cause-changed ini­tia­tives and cel­e­bra­tions of his­tory and reunion. Never is our hu­man bond more no­tice­able than in times of dis­tress, such as natural dis­as­ter, death or dra­matic change. Our need for one an­other is deep-seated, and as tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances con­tinue to iso­late our species, we need to re­mem­ber that we are fun­da­men­tally com­mu­nal. We are all in this life to­gether, and a bet­ter to­mor­row re­quires a com­mu­nity-based species.”

In the end, no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult the cri­sis, the power of re­silience in peo­ple seems to re­main re­mark­ably strong. The Jo­plin tor­nado may have been the ul­ti­mate test to date for just about any­one, but the survivors there ap­pear to be mak­ing their own even more pow­er­ful come­back – after the fact.

Photo: Kansas City District U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers, CC

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