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Flood fight takes psychological toll

The trouble signs can seem almost innocuous for people who pride themselves on their stubborn self-reliance and ability to weather adversity.

For some, it is a sense of nagging bewilderment: "I don't know where to turn, and I don't know how to think straight."

For others, it might be an offhand admission: "I'm not feeling like myself," or "My husband is just not right."

And for the most deeply troubled: "I just can't keep going," or "I'm thinking about ending it all."

Those kinds of thoughts or comments, says Shelli Koski, disaster mental health manager for the American Red Cross relief effort in Fargo, are the kind people seeking help in flood shelters have been making.

As of Wednesday evening, the American Red Cross has made 910 "clinically significant interactions" with adult flood victims and 88 children. Counting contacts from affiliated organizations, the number of "psychological first aid" visits reached 1,615 in the Red River Valley and other flood areas around North Dakota, Koski said.

"It's a significant number for this community," she added. "We've been busy."

Prairie St. John's so far has admitted 10 patients at its Fargo hospital who are struggling to cope with flooding Tuesday and Wednesday, clinical director Jenn Faul said.

She predicts more people with flood-related mental health issues will come forth, now that the initial flood fight is over and the focus is shifting to flood recovery.

"I think people are starting to wind down," Faul said. "The first round of stress was helpful," she added, because it helped people sandbag and make other flood preparations.

For adults, symptoms of mental health problems could include irritability, confusion, difficulty sleeping or focusing.

Children, often overlooked, also are having problems coping with the stress and anxiety of the flood, Koski and Faul said.

Even more than adults, children depend on the comfort of routines. Many have been bombarded with troubling news reports and images, Koski said.

Children's symptoms can include acting out, sleep changes, nightmares, bed-wetting, or reverting to thumb-sucking or hair twisting, Faul said.

Some refugees in Fargo-Moorhead who emigrated from war-torn countries, such as Sudan or Somalia, have had flashbacks from military helicopters whirling overhead and the pres-ence of National Guard soldiers.

Overall, refugees experience the same stresses from the flood as the gen-eral population, said Sinisa Milovanovic, new American services director for Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.

"That being said, I think refugees do have the additional experience of being in war zones," he said. To try to prepare recent refugees for the flood, center staff met to tell them about the flood and preparations to fight it, Milovanovic said.

As more flood victims return to damaged homes, and have trouble coping with the prolonged strain of the flood fight and recovery, more people will seek counseling help, Koski said.

"People have been trying to function at such a high level of anxiety and arousal that they're just collapsing," she said. "I hope people are strong enough to reach out. We're here."

For "psychological first aid" flood victims can call the American Red Cross at (866) GET-INFO.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to