Kilauea Volcano has been erupting for more than a month now. Thousands of Big Island residents have been displaced and hundreds of homes have been destroyed. But natural disasters leave behind more than just physical damage. HPR Reporter Ku’uwehi Hiraishi has more.
Dr. Paul Beighley has been on the front lines providing mental health support to Puna residents since day one of the Kilauea eruption. He’s the medical director for the adult mental health division under the state department of health.
“When a crisis first happens, folks immediate concerns tend to be on food and shelter and getting out of harm’s way,” says Dr. Beighley, “And you can sometimes see psychological denial where the emotions are shut down a bit because you’re more focused on the here and now survival needs.”
Unlike other natural disasters, lava has been flowing in Puna for more than a month. Dr. Mark Fridovich says the prolonged nature of the event could cause substantial mental exhaustion. He runs the health department’s adult mental health division.
“So in addition to the fear, anxiety, stress, there’s the uncertainty about what’s going to happen, the fatigue around the period of time that this has lasted and then the real feeling so lost – loss of their homes maybe, loss of relationships in their neighborhood,” says Dr. Fridovich, “Displacement and disruption to maybe all aspects of life.”
In the past week, Hawai’i County Civil Defense reported an apparent suicide near one of the evacuation shelters, an intoxicated driver ran his truck into a wall of lava, and Leilani Estates resident John Hubbard is captured on this video shooting at another resident.
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“One of the most common psychological responses to loss and grieving and trauma, and that is anger,” says Dr. Beighley, “When something happens that strikes you as unfair that’s stressing your ability to cope. That anger is a normal human response.”
While neither doctor condones violence, everyone is understandably on edge says Dr. Fridovich.
“Itʻs a time for folks to be understanding of one another and supportive,” says Dr. Fridovich, “So if you see somebody having a hard time, try to be supportive of them, try to steer them toward help. Crisis counseling and other kinds of support can make a big difference.”
According to the American Red Cross, an estimated 1,900 people have received some form of mental health care since the eruption began. But with uncertainty looming over how much longer the eruption will last, the path to healing could be a long one.
“It’s very important to try to deal with this because this is a marathon for most of us. It’s not a sprint. It’s not something that’s over quickly and then it’s done,” says Dr. Beighley, “We have to pace this and pace our response to it so that we can stay healthy over the long term cause hopefully things start moving back to normalcy again.”