The summer of 2016 was already a season filled with anxiety for many in the Baton Rouge area.
From July 5, when the shooting of Alton Sterling led to weeks of protests, to the July 17 ambush of law enforcement officers that left six injured and three dead, an immense tension had formed across the state capital region.
Now, after historic floods ruined thousands of homes and businesses and killed more than a dozen across south Louisiana, therapists are seeing patients "paralyzed" with depression and anxiety.
“When you think of the enormity of all those events in just two months, and now some people have lost everything they have, no wonder they feel immobilized," said Patricia Godfrey, a Baton Rouge-based clinical social worker.
Many of those who have lost property in the floods have sought help from therapists this week, Godfrey said, as well as some who have spent day after day caring for others without rest.
"They're feeling anxiety, feeling helpless, feeling fearful," Godfrey said.
Others are feeling a form of survivor's guilt, Godfrey said. A friend of hers called it "dry house guilt." For many, that feeling leads them to help others and volunteer, a positive response.
Through the sadness and despair, Godfrey also sees positive effects of the flood.
People will grow closer, she said, and others will find community that they badly need.
"Neighbors who have not been close are now meeting one another," she said.
Churches' roles as a central part of the community grow in these times, too.
"I find that people are turning back more (to the church), and part of it is that sense of community and support," she said.
Because of the magnitude of the flood's destruction, physicians and therapists are expecting to see mental health needs spike in coming months.
Dr. Kenny Cole, a lead physician for the Baton Rouge General health system, said the summer's events and now the massive flooding could create an environment of despair that leads some to suicidal thoughts.
"I hate to say it, but I suspect that people who have lost everything and people who go through despair and hopelessness don’t see any other option," said Cole.
Many who suffer from depression and anxiety think they lack the strength to handle life's challenges, Cole said. But they need to know that they suffer from a treatable ailment, he said.
"That’s what people feel, that it’s weakness, that they’re not mentally strong enough," Cole said. "They blame themselves. It’s important they don’t feel that way, that they understand there is a physiological basis for it, like high blood pressure or diabetes or heart disease or any other ailment."
For many suffering from depression following the floods, there is no mental illness, Godfrey said. Sadness is a proper emotion following such devastation.
"You are supposed to be sad," she said. "You are supposed to cry. You are supposed to feel lonely. You are supposed to feel, 'Oh my God, I cannot pick up another thing.'"
Godfrey encourages patients to never lose sight of the dawn.
"There is hope," she said. "The sun, it always comes up. There is always, always, always light after darkness. Always."
Signs of anxiety and depression can be difficult to detect, especially during times of crisis, Godfrey said.
According to social worker Stephen Aguillard, clinical director of the Capital Area Human Services District, signs of anxiety and depression may include:
- Sleeping more or less than normal
- An increase or decrease in energy levels
- Increasing alcohol or drug use
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Refusing to accept help from others
- Confusion, a lack of concentration or constant worrying
To lessen the stress that leads to anxiety or depression, Aguillard recommended the following actions:
- Talk to someone "Reach out to a good friend or family member and talk about how you feel," Aguillard said.
- Exercise or move around. "Not just sitting at a desk or in front of a TV," he said. "Get up and periodically move around and walk around."
- Take a break from the news. "Listening to music works well," he said. "Not watching the TV stations or viewing events that are going on 24-7, but taking a break."
- Care for your own needs. "Paying attention to yourself here is a big deal," Aguillard said.
If you see signs of despair or depression in yourself or a friend or loved one, contact a therapist. Call the Capital Area Human Services District at (225) 925-1906 or call THE PHONE, a 24-hour crisis counseling and emotional support line serving the Greater Baton Rouge Area, at (225) 924-3900.