Priests, nuns, psychologists help flood-hit Kerala

Church dispatches friendly faces to remind suicidal victims that they are not alone after worst floods in over a century
Priests, nuns, psychologists help flood-hit Kerala

A woman inspects a damaged stove at her kitchen following floods in Paravur, near Kochi, in the southern Indian state of Kerala on Aug. 23. Many flood victims need psychiatric help to cope with the trauma. (Photo by AFP)

Psychologists and counselors are working around the clock to restore a sense of normalcy to the lives of nearly one million people displaced by the worst floods to hit the southern Indian state of Kerala since 1924.

The mental health department, church groups and other non-governmental agencies are trying to help people overcome the trauma they experienced during the floods through helplines and informal house visits.

The need for psychological help was underlined after a 68-year-old man reportedly committed suicide and another died of a heart attack after seeing their flood-ravaged homes when they returned from relief camps.

Thousands of trained mental health workers and Christian volunteers have fanned into the homes of affected people to help them cope with life after the floods, which struck in August and are estimated to have caused damage worth 200 billion rupees (US$2.82 billion). Analysts say the final financial toll could be 10 times higher at US$30 billion, India Today reports.

"Many of those who have called us are in a shattered state. A few have even lost their desire to live," said a counselor who handles a helpline at Lourdes Hospital, a Catholic mission hospital in Kerala that falls under the guidance of Verapoly Archdiocese in Ernakulam district.

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Anxiety is at an all-time high as many people have lost hope after seeing all their worldly possessions destroyed and their savings washed away in the floods, said the counselor, who declined to give his name.

He cited the case of one middle-aged man with suicidal tendencies who was recently admitted to the hospital, adding that most of the victims have been evacuated from their homes and moved to higher ground after rivers overflowed, leaving many residential areas swamped from Aug. 15-18.

"They had to leave their homes and all their belongings. The floods have washed everything away and deposited mounds of mud where people used to live," he added.

Psychiatrist C.J. John, who works with the Medical Trust Hospital in the port city of Kochi, said the typical response is shock followed by depression.

"It was easier to manage them in the relief camps, where they effectively functioned as self-help groups and were able to share their pain and agony," he said." "But when they return home they feel abandoned and helpless, which easily serves as a trigger for various mental disorders."

Teams of nuns and church groups have started visiting families in the worst-affected dioceses such as Idukki, Changanacherry and Manathavady.

They say that even something as simple as sitting down for a cup of tea and listening to the victim's tales of woe can have a healing effect, as it lets them purge and reminds them they are not alone.

Roy Abraham Kallivayalil, secretary-general of the World Psychiatric Association and head of the department of psychiatry at Pushpagiri Hospital, said the facility has welcomed at least 200 flood victims in the last two weeks. Several have expressed a desire to die because they don't see how they can survive financially, he said.

"According to the World Health Organization [WHO], 20 to 40 percent of people who suffer due to a natural or man-made disaster are likely to develop at least mild forms of psychological distress," he said, adding that more people experience moderate to severe distress.

"A minority may develop new and debilitating mental disorders. The timely provision of mental health services would considerably reduce the impact of this," Kallivayalil said.

Father Paul Cheruvally, director of the social service wing of Syro-Malabar Church in Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, said it has a large pool of experienced counselors, including priests, nuns and laymen, visiting affected houses throughout the archdiocese.

Mohan Roy, who served as the WHO's coordinator for the mental rehabilitation of people affected by the tsunami that hit Kerala in 2004, said getting local counselors involved was the right approach.

"They are familiar with the conditions particular to the community, which makes them much more effective than experts from outside," he said.

They can identify cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or "survivor syndrome," through a cluster of symptoms including loss of appetite, insomnia, dizziness, nervousness and difficulty concentrating.

Roy said that in his experience most disaster or trauma victims recover within a couple of months provided they receive the right level of counseling or psychiatric help.

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