The wave of ‘unpredictable and out of control’ tornadoes along the coast north of Wellington ‘has all the classic ingredients to produce anxiety’, a mental health expert has said.
In the past month, the lower North Island has experienced four tornadoes – an extreme weather event more closely associated with the Great Plains of the United States.
While severe weather, natural disasters and climate change in general are known to cause anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the fact that Kiwis are unaccustomed to tornadoes adds another layer.
After Waikanae experienced its third tornado in two weeks, Victoria University of Wellington clinical psychologist Dougal Sutherland said feelings of fear went beyond the possibility of physical harm.
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New Zealand was not used to tornadoes; the country lacked infrastructure or shelters built for this purpose; and tornadoes were unpredictable and out of control, Sutherland said.
“These are classic ingredients for producing anxiety.”
While other natural disasters, such as tsunamis and earthquakes, were no less frightening when they occurred, New Zealanders generally felt more physically and mentally prepared.
Thus, these more common types of events were less likely to have long-term impacts.
Stephanie Knighton says their barbecue fell through a neighbor’s window due to bad weather on Sunday night.
Waikanae resident Stephanie Knighton-Green said her family felt more vulnerable after the tornado tore down their fence and damaged their roof.
People could walk past, look into their section, and some would stop to take pictures.
This unwelcome exposure added to the fear and anxiety felt by herself, her partner Paul Knighton and their two children.
The day before the tornado, the two children from Knighton-Green had practiced gratitude at dinnertime. Both said they were grateful to have a roof over their heads.
“Now the roof is slamming.”
Knighton-Green said her seven-year-old son cried when he saw the damage and her nine-year-old daughter became anxious before bed on Sunday night.
It was scary not knowing when another tornado might hit, she said.
“In the future, it will be a bit nerve-wracking.”
The idea of steel fences and trampolines being ripped out of the ground and thrown into the street was “pretty scary”.
In addition to the physical damage, some of those whose property was affected by the tornadoes faced financial hardship, and then there was the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
“It just adds to the load,” Knighton-Green said.
In its guidance on dealing with traumatic stress after a tornado, the American Psychological Association states that many people are able to cope effectively with the emotional and physical demands brought on by a natural disaster using their own support systems.
“However, it is not uncommon to find that serious problems persist and continue to interfere with daily life,” he says.
Some people may experience overwhelming nervousness or persistent sadness that negatively affects work performance and interpersonal relationships.
And recent US research found mental health impacts were compounded in a community that was hit by a tornado, while dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
Laura Sweetman and St Joseph’s Catholic School Principal Maria Lyne talk about the destruction caused by Friday’s tornado.
Further north in Levin, a tornado hit on May 20, tearing through fences, trees and homes.
Following the severe weather event, Horowhenua District Council included referrals to mental health support services in its community advisories.
The council suggested that those experiencing anxiety, stress, prolonged fear, despair or anger after the tornado should speak to a trained counsellor.
Horowhenua Mayor Bernie Wanden said the extreme weather conditions that followed the tornado added to the town’s anxiety.
“I have never watched a weather report so much as I have in the past few weeks,” Wanden said.
Historically, the community of 19,000 people faced a few major rainfall events per year; recently he knew about half a dozen.
“That’s the reality we now have to face.”
Wanden said the council and community did their best to be proactive and respond as soon as possible after last month’s tornado.
“It was key to making sure people didn’t have time to develop these anxieties and mental health issues,” he said, adding that he thought the strong show of community support was reassuring. people and was certain that others around them cared about them.
While Wanden applauded the community’s response and general resilience, he acknowledged that some people would be more emotionally and financially affected than others.
The tornado ripped straight through a residential suburb in the state, adding uncertainty to an already struggling group of people.
The lack of emergency accommodation in the city further compounded the stress they were feeling, he said.
Sutherland, from Victoria University, said New Zealand was not particularly well prepared to deal with the mental and emotional impact of these extreme weather events.
As the climate became more unstable, Kiwis would experience more dramatic and dangerous weather events, and that would be quite scary for some people, he said.
It was important for the adults to talk to the children about what was going on, so that they could come up with a plan together.
More broadly, Aotearoa should seek to develop mental health resources for communities – like those released in Australia following the bushfires.
Sutherland said the silver lining was that extreme events, like tornadoes, lead to greater awareness of climate anxiety and the mental health effects of natural disasters.
Where to get help:
1737, Need to talk? Call for free or text 1737 to speak to a qualified adviser.
Anxiety New Zealand 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)
Depression.org.nz 0800 111 757 or SMS 4202
Kidsline 0800 54 37 54 for people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7.
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Mental Health Foundation 09 623 4812, click here to access their free resource and information service.
Rural Support Trust 0800 787 254
Samaritans 0800 726 666
Suicide crisis hotline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Yellow Brick Road 0800 732 825
thelowdown.co.nz Web Chat, Email Chat or Free Text 5626
What’s Up 0800 942 8787 (for ages 5-18). Telephone consultation available Monday to Friday from 12 p.m. to 11 p.m. and weekends from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Online chat is available every day from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Youthline 0800 376 633, free text 234, email [email protected], or find live chat and other support options here.
If this is an emergency, click here to find your local Crisis Assessment Team number.
In case of life danger, call 111.