Expert on psychological impacts on Canterbury quake victims

Tony Taylor, emeritus professor at Victoria Universitys School of Psychology specialises in human reactions to disasters and the phases of disasters. He provided the Science Media Centre with some comments on the short and potentially long-term psychological impacts of the Canterbury earthquake on the people who experienced it and its numerous aftershocks.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor

Symptoms of psychological stress

They are seen in loss of appetite, loss of sleep and often tremendous agitation. A truck passing that makes a house tremble in a normal sort of way or any great commotion outside with emergency vehicles can trigger a stress response [in the wake of a disaster like an earthquake]. It is only if these things persist for some time and it gets more than a person can manage without help, that it [needs treatment].

Importantly, the reactions only become symptoms when they become persistent. They have to be in a sufficient pattern before they will be of any clinical significance. Hence, the best advice any clinician will give is to encourage people to go through a process of self application of first aid as you would in the normal course of events in your home, for instance, when you cut your finger. The best help is to contact friends, talk to them about your own reactions.

Caution needed in diagnosing psychological problems

Do not let us pathologize what could be the normal reactions of sensible human beings to temporary adversity. We have to turn adversity into some kind of triumphant experience. Given time, support and encouragement, this will happen. Be understanding, be compassionate, be caring to others. And do think more of the ordinary, neighbourly, everyday things that make good communities work.

Psychological effects can be misinterpreted and misunderstood. They can be there in their clarity in the early phases, but after a month, after two or three months, they will disappear. In many cases, people will emerge more confident and stronger having gone through such an experience.

There are cyclical fluctuations in the responses of people to disasters. They wont have taken stock properly, they wont have begun to try and put things into perspective. Most people will want to, need to and be able to do much to aid with their own recovery.

Impact on children, elderly, religious dimensions.

Children can capture the feelings of anxiety, worry of their parents and translate it through to themselves. For older people, this comes at a time when they are settled in their lives, and while they may or may not be religious, theres a common sense of spirituality about the order of life that will have been tremendously shaken. Religious people have been trained in the past to go back to revelations in the Christian Bible, to blame themselves for what has happened as a punishment on them and their community. We have seen too many examples of this to overlook it. Rural people are invariably, much more self-reliant.