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Tuesday, Nov 19, 2019

A month later, cyclone Fani still plays havoc with survivors’ mental health

Cyclone Fani, a category 4 storm, ravaged the entire Puri district, severely damaging over 2 lakh kutcha and pucca homes.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2019 22:24 IST
Debabrata Mohanty
Debabrata Mohanty
Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar
The aftermath of cyclone Fani in Puri, Odisha.
The aftermath of cyclone Fani in Puri, Odisha. (REUTERS)

A month after cyclone Fani pummelled Odisha’s coastline, it is still taking a toll on the minds of the survivors of the storm, say mental health officials.

Cyclone Fani, a category 4 storm, ravaged the entire Puri district, severely damaging over 2 lakh kutcha and pucca homes. In Odisha, it affected over 1.65 crore people in 14 districts and was responsible for 64 deaths immediately.

Lakhs of kilometres of power lines and over 1.5 lakh electric poles were either snapped or uprooted throwing millions of people into darkness. Even now more than 40 per cent of Puri district is yet to get power.

While the physical damages are slowly being recouped, Fani seems to have dealt a blow to the mental well-being of people who came in the arc of the cyclone.

Mental health professionals who travelled to the cyclone-affected Puri district after the cyclone’s landfall, said there still exists severe psychological trauma with emotional outbursts among the people whose houses were severely damaged and those deprived of minimal basic needs. The team headed by Dr Swain and comprising mental health professionals like psychiatrist, clinical psychologist and psychiatric social workers assessed the mental health of around 5000 affected people.

“All the people who were affected severely by destruction of their houses and livelihood and lacked social support systems have difficulty in sleeping, maintaining daily routine activities, maintaining social cohesion with family and friends. They are also feeling depressed by observing the scene of destruction around them,” said Dr Sarada Prasanna Swain, director of Mental Health Institute of state-run SCB Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack.

Also read: In cyclone-hit Odisha, police and ordinary citizen become good samaritans

Swain, who is a resource person of NDMA and has co-written a manual of mental health in disaster management, said in most of the affected villages, the people were diagnosed with Adjustment Disorder where there is maladjustment in daily routine activities, loss of interest in occupational work, loss of appetite, feeling of desperation and sleep deprivation.

While all the people affected by Fani either directly or indirectly at Puri, showed the emotional reactions after the disaster, the impact was much more evident on children, pregnant women, geriatric population and mentally/physically challenged persons. The cyclone also triggered acute stress in people who were already mentally challenged.

In Puri’s Brahmagiri block, the Ground zero of the cyclone, 75-year-old Pravakar Kandi (name changed), showed clear post traumatic stress symptoms like difficulty in sleeping, nightmares related to loss of his house and repeated flashbacks of May 3. “His kutcha home was severely damaged, his livestock died taking away his livelihood. While interacting with mental health professionals he found it difficult to narrate, but after few minutes of counselling he wept with lot of agony and described the horror of the fateful day,” said Dr Narendra Samanatray, a psychiatrist who was part of the team of professionals who visited at least 6 of the 14 blocks in the district.

Similarly, Malati Nayak(name changed), a 42-year-old woman insisted on accompanying her two daughters even when they went to take bath. Nayak had lost her home and reportedly showed deep anxiety and fearful behaviour. “She would check every 15-20 minutes if her two daughters were fine. She was scared that another cyclone may come and make her two daughters disappear,” said a mental health professional.

In another village of Puri, 44-year-old farmer Basanta Pradhan (name changed) was diagnosed with depression. The cyclonic rain had turned Pradhan’s sack of rice soggy rendering it unfit for human consumption. “For most part of the day he harboured the guilt that he should have taken better measures to keep his rice sacks safe. Instead of leisure activities like gossiping and playing cards, he remained restless and had suicidal thoughts,” said Samantray.

Also read: Cyclone Fani aftermath: Drinking water shortage, high prices cripple life

In Krushnaprasad block, people were afraid of just disappearing if another cyclone hit the coast and they kept on recollecting the day of cyclone in vivid detail every now and then.

While interacting with the people, the team observed that the psychological distress and social disability was more acute in areas where the impact of Fani was greater. The sudden increase in mosquitoes in the aftermath of cyclone also added to their sleep deprivation. “The restoration of mental health is dependent upon the restoration of their houses and maintenance of daily routine. Timely and appropriate management of general medical conditions will also decrease the level of stress and need of mental health interventions,” said Swain.

He said the MHI, NIMHANS and UNFPA are now involved in providing psychosocial support to the affected people. “We are training trainers who would then train local health workers like auxiliary nurse midwives, multipurpose health workers and ASHA workers on detecting basic mental health symptoms in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The capacity development of the community-level workers are important for their intervention at villages. One these health workers refer cases to us in Mental Health Institute, we would intervene. MHI has plans to cover all the areas by administering different psychometric scales to know the level of psycho-social trauma,” he said.

Also read: Cyclone Fani: Odisha stares at ecological crisis

Officials said in comparison to 1999 super cyclone that killed over 10000 people in Odisha’s coastal districts, particularly Jagatsinghpur, cyclone Fani was not that dangerous. After the 1999 super cyclone more than 60 survivors committed suicides unable to come to term with the grief and depression in their lives. Around one year after the super cyclone, a study by a group of researchers including Swain on adolescents in the most affected Jagatsinghpur district found that morbidity level was very high among 39% of the adolescents.

“In 1999, evacuation could not happen before disaster unlike 2019 when timely evacuation reduced the casualty. With timely intervention, anxiety and depression can be brought down,” said Dr Swain.