The apocalyptic scenes of floating bodies, the desperate flight of refugees and destruction spawned by Hurricane Katrina could take a major psychological toll on survivors and rescuers, experts say.
"It is going to be a very difficult process, I think the emotional toll is going to be substantial," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned on Monday, referring to the grisly process of collecting victims' bodies as the waters of New Orleans recede.
Thousands of people are feared dead in the city of jazz, which was turned into a fetid swamp when its dykes burst after Katrina struck the US Gulf Coast a week ago.
Even ordinary Americans who have watched the devastation and its horrific consequences unfold from afar are not immune from the effects of the storm, the New Jersey Association of Mental Health Agencies warned.
Among the warning signs of Katrina-related stress are loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, recurrent nightmares, loss of concentration, irritability, excessive sweating and trembling, irrational fear and a feeling of helplessness, experts say.
All those who escaped the wrath of the storm and ensuing flooding of New Orleans will present at least one of the symptoms, the experts said, adding it was critical to monitor how they develop over time to avoid them taking permanent root.
But psychiatrist Thomas Insel, head of the National Institute of Mental Health, insisted there was no reason for Americans to slip into dark defeatism, saying people were more resilient than one might think.
"We have learned from research both in this country and other countries that have had extensive wars or crises that people are amazingly resilient," he said.
"Most will completely recover from the trauma; others are more vulnerable, especially those who have had previous traumatic experiences, and will need additional help."
But Wentz said the traumatic stress could exacerbate underlying mental health problems and also spark psychological trauma among children.
Parents should do their best to maintain family routines, remain patient and provide soothing activities to help youngsters get through the crisis.
Rescuers who have been saving thousands of trapped survivors of New Orleans' epic flooding, as bloated corpses float through the streets or bob on lamp posts to which they have been tied while awaiting recovery, are already showing signs of trauma.
Several were seen breaking down in tears or were unable to speak to journalists who quizzed them about what they had witnessed during their dramatic missions.
"Some firefighters and police officers have been pretty much traumatized. And we've already had a couple of suicides," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said.
"They've been holding the city together for three or four days, almost by themselves, doing everything imaginable," Nagin said, "and the toll is just too much for them," adding that some had simply quit the force.
Source: China Daily