by Senator Kirk Watson for the Austin-American Statesman

Sen. Kirk Watson D-Austin during a visit to a Red Cross Shelter set up to accommodate people seeking refuge from Hurricane Harvey on August 26, 2017

As Hurricane Harvey hit Texas a couple weeks ago, I visited the Delco Center to spend time with evacuees who were facing an unknown but excruciating loss.

I talked with a young woman who was there with her children and mother, but she didn’t know where her dad was. He’d stayed behind.  When we visited, she hadn’t heard from him and was frightened about what might have happened.  She worried about what, if anything, she and her family would return to.

Then there was the father who was cradling his 5-week old infant son and concerned about supporting his family and what he’d need to do to recover.

A group of children sat on the concrete floor watching movies projected on a wall.  I returned later with rugs and pillows to make their space a little more comfortable, along with books, games and jumping ropes so that they’d have some activities to pass the time.  Every kid’s routine, even school attendance, was in disarray.

The Delco Center was filled with many fearful, anxious people whose lives had been completely upended by a disaster. Of course, they were only a small portion of those facing uncertain and difficult futures.

For those who lived through Harvey and its aftermath, this storm is likely to become the “before and after” for their lives.

Research shows most people who live through a disaster recover fully, but some will develop mental health issues, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, researchers determined that 30-50% of all survivors suffered from PTSD and 36% of Katrina-affected children showed serious emotional disturbances. In addition, a post-Katrina survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 25 percent of respondents lived with someone who needed mental health counseling but fewer than 2% received it.

The data from Katrina reminds us that Harvey’s survivors will need attention and care far into the future. Mental health issues tend to be underreported in the immediate aftermath because such symptoms are typically not expressed for weeks or months after a traumatic event.

As we shelter our coastal neighbors affected by Harvey, I’m proud to support the work of our local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI Austin provides free classes and support groups for individuals and families living with mental health issues and offers no-cost mental health trainings and presentations in schools, workplaces and faith communities. Their work is changing the way our community talks about and addresses mental health throughout the year, and in times of disaster.

In coordination with other nonprofit organizations, NAMI Austin is serving as a source of hope and help as our community assesses the mental and emotional needs of our coastal neighbors, offering the best of its resources to assist the vulnerable populations of adults and children impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

On Saturday, September 23, I’m serving as the Honorary Walk Chair for the NAMI Austin’s 12th Annual NAMIWalks, the largest mental health awareness event in Central Texas. Join me as we celebrate the wellness our community creates when we encourage people to talk openly about mental health, seek help when needed and access the free mental health programs NAMI Austin offers.

Right now, we’re focusing on the physical needs of our coastal communities. There are buildings to clean, brush to clear, roads to fix and roofs to repair. But organizations like NAMI Austin remind us not to forget the long-term emotional and mental health needs of our neighbors as well.

To register for NAMIWalks Austin, visit namiwalks.org/Austin.

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