From extensive research, we know that around 80% of those who experience an emergency event like the recent Canterbury quake and subsequent aftershocks are pretty much OK after going through some initial ups and downs at the time of the event. This 80% can draw upon the resources and supportive people around them – that’s what enables them to be OK and be resilient in the face of such a challenge. They also have good and timely access to meet their basic needs – food, water and sanitation, secure shelter, and knowing those those that they care about are also safe and cared for. They also have access to information that helps them make sense of what they are experiencing – from new thoughts, feelings and behaviours that they find themselves engaging in (like running for shelter when relatively small aftershocks are happening), and it also helps them explain what is going on to others. Important in all this is concrete advice on what people can do. In times of uncertainty, focusing upon what we can do rather than what we can’t is a vital tool to help us feel like we’re keeping on top of things, even if in small ways.
The majority of the remaining 20% of those affected will feel better with relatively simple interventions – putting them in touch with supportive services and social networks, assistance with financial challenges, support for transitional arrangements to new accommodation and or schools. It might be harder for people who go through this, and they may experience mild psychological difficulties, but again, they tend to do OK in the medium to longer term.
Only about 3-5% of those going through emergency crisis events need sustained intervention of mental health professionals. It is very clear that those who experience ‘trauma’ type symptoms are in the minority. We know that the much more common is resilience, but where people might need ‘light touch’ assistance, rather than an unhelpful label of being ‘traumatised’. This resilience is being demonstrated in bucket-loads in Canterbury – but there are also people who could do with some help, advice, and perhaps a little space with caring and compassionate people who will help them make sense of their highly unusual and sometimes frightening experience.
For the vast majority of those affected by the Canterbury earthquake, this does not mean that they are traumatised, though we need to keep a look out for those who might need more intensive assistance.