In the days after Hurricane Irma, psychiatrist Dr. June Samuel started encountering patients at Peebles Hospital who had experienced terrifying situations during the storm. However, they weren’t showing any specific symptoms and denied that anything was wrong.
“Then I ask them if they’re sleeping,” she said. “And they tell me they are not. That’s when I knew.”
Lack of sleep is one of the classic hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Dr. Samuel, chief of medical staff at the BVI Health Services Authority, said during a Wednesday talk at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Road Town.
“Hurricane Irma was unique in that we all — everybody who was here at the time —experienced the same thing,” she said.
Since the storms, she added, she has been seeing patients who are experiencing a host of symptoms related to this disorder. Besides lack of sleep, they can include emotions like anxiety, sadness or fear; unpleasant flashbacks; or reckless behaviour, leading to strained relationships with family and friends.
Dr. Samuel also pointed out that after a traumatic event like Hurricane Irma, many people begin avoiding others who remind them of the hurricane or places they associated with it.
“That’s why I think people were so happy when things started getting green again,” she said. “Having everything bare like that was a reminder of what we went through as a territory.”
She also explained that the symptoms of PTSD can be both emotional and physical.
For instance, someone who suffered trauma during the hurricane may experience intrusive symptoms like flashbacks or nightmares, as well as being triggered by external cues that remind them of the storm.
“We have been seeing cases where the sound of wind or rain gets [people] very anxious — more than anxious, actually,” she said. “In children, we see this a lot.”
Beverly Donovan, a teacher and reading specialist at the Virgin Islands School of Technical Studies, attended the talk and agrees that children have been especially affected.
In recent months, she said, she has encountered students lashing out in ways she suspects are related to trauma they experienced. But she is also dealing with trauma herself.
“I experience anxiety and other symptoms and that is not a good thing for my line of work,” she said. “But I came because I want to encourage my students to learn how to discuss their feelings.”
Dr. Samuel said symptoms can also include negative emotions such as sadness or shame — or patients may not remember the event at all.
“People told me in the days following Irma, ‘I remember being taken somewhere, but I don’t remember how I got there,’” she recounted.
Or they may not feel anything, a phenomenon known as “numbing.” Guilt, she added, is also common.
“People tell me, ‘I survived with my life, so why do I still feel this way?’” she said.
But, she explained, it’s normal to still have negative feelings even when logically it makes sense to be grateful for life.
Dr. Samuel urged anyone who might be suffering such symptoms to seek counselling, especially if their symptoms are beginning to interfere with their ability to function at work or in daily life. There’s a misconception, though, that treating PTSD is about helping people try to “forget” the event, she explained.
“It’s not about ‘forgetting’ anything,” she said. “It’s about having a life experience you can think about without becoming anxious.”
She added that treatment for PTSD often involves gradual exposure to people, places and concepts related to the trauma.
“At some point you can talk about it and you don’t have that overwhelming response; that’s where we’re trying to get you to,” she said.
Treatment can also include medication, but Dr. Samuel emphasised that not every patient will need it. There are also other solutions patients can engage in on their own.
“Engage in healthy behaviours, such as a good diet and exercise regimen, which can help reduce stress,” she said.
She also recommended seeking out comfortable routines and familiar people, which are important for reestablishing a sense of normalcy.
Talking it out
Dr. Ian Rock, rector of the church, said he was inspired to host the talk after hearing stories of trauma arise during group sessions he led with members of his congregation after the hurricane. It was then that he realised how important it is not to bottle up emotions.
“We must talk about our feelings,” he said.
Dr. Samuel agreed that community support is also vital.
“If your environment is supportive, then your response is going to be different than if it’s not supportive,” she said. “So, for example, I was heartened that we came up with the #BVIstrong phrase, because it’s a way of trying to engender support from each other.”