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Spring 2005 | Volume 28, Number 1 | Features

The Tsunami’s Psychological Devastation

MOST SURVIVORS of the Christmas tsunami in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia will never be able to view the ocean the same way again. Fishermen who relied on the sea for sustenance now scan the horizon daily for potential disaster; bathers who found joy in the surf now see an indifferent malevolence lurking; and holidayers go elsewhere. The sea rose up suddenly, like a great white shark, and the result was devastating.

The physical toll from the Asian tsunami has been incalculable, but the searing psychological devastation is no less so. It has been more than a year since a different tsunami hit Papua New Guinea, and the people there still fear the water. The Asian disaster struck people with a triple blow :bereavement grief, post-traumatic stress, and a sense of desperation in trying to pick up the pieces of their lives and move on.

In addition to rebuilding their communities, the greatest effort for survivors will be rebuilding shattered psyches. Right now, shock and grief are the emotions closest to the surface. One Sri Lankan doctor noted that what survivors needed were not counselors, but “befrienders,” people who will listen with compassion to the outpouring of sorrow.

The children have been the hardest hit, particularly those orphaned by the wave. Orphanages and relief camps report kids awaking in the night screaming from terrible nightmares of watching their parents being swept away from them. Human predators cruise orphanages claiming children who are not their own in order to exploit them. How will these children ever feel secure again?

The first phase of survival aid — food, clothing, shelter, and recovery of the dead — has completed its cycle, and now the urgency is for psychological care. There is a great need to provide an organized, prepared, and culturally sensitive response to the psychological
impact of the tsunami disaster. In particular, we need to:

  • provide short-term befriending services as people pour out their grief and sorrow;
  • provide long-term professional care for post-traumatic stress disorder, which may require new training for caregivers and other helping professionals;
  • provide secondary psychological care to aid workers for compassion fatigue; and
  • so far as is possible, gently help people
    help themselves.

Psychological care following natural and man-made disasters has a history of reactivity rather than responsiveness — whether in the aftermath of 9/11, the Croatian massacres, or the great earthquake in Gujarat, India. If the tsunami can teach us anything, it is that we must be prepared ahead of time to respond to great psychological need. While the wave’s destruction was indiscriminate and diffuse, worldwide aid must be targeted and calculated to give the greatest relief. It is time to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and provide responsive aid, to mourn with those who mourn, and to help people reclaim their lives.


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