People of an Earthquake Belt

8 February 2023
People of an Earthquake Belt

We have interviewed with Clinical Psychologist Yasemin Meriç about community psychology and coping with trauma after the earthquake.

Famously Theodor W. Adorno said that, “To write poet after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Indeed, with these words Adorno meant to difficulty of express suffer in some situations. Just as it is hard to write about indescribable sorrow we share as a whole community after the 7.7 magnitude earthquake that happened in Kahramanmaraş in the early morning hours of February 6. Since of this big disaster, we interviewed with Clinical Psychologist Yasemin Meriç about the psychological impact of the earthquake, which deeply affected not only our citizens in the earthquake zone but also every part of society.

People Of An Earthquake Belt
Yasemin Meriç

Turkey is on earthquake belt; how can we prepare ourselves for an earthquake mentally?

We cannot predict the natural disasters, that’s why, the important thing is to be focusing on physical needs in mental preparation process. Firstly, making preliminary preparations such as strengthening the areas in our house where we can intervene, fixing the furniture in accordance with the earthquake, and preparing an earthquake bag make us to feel safer and supports our psychological well-being by reducing anxiety. In addition, it is very important to be informed about earthquakes and to inform children in an appropriate language. As we become more informed, we can take the necessary precautions more consciously as the uncertainty of the subject will decrease and we will realize what awaits us. This increases our sense of security, which in turn positively affects our psychological well-being.

What are the psychological effects of big disasters like earthquake?

Earthquake is a traumatic and challenging life event. Trauma threatens a person’s physical and psychological integrity and is divided into “T” and “t”. “T” refers to experiences that can be considered traumatic for everyone and earthquakes are an example of this. People who are directly exposed to this trauma, those who have a relative exposed to this trauma, and those who are affected by this event even from a distance (news, social media, etc.) are all likely to experience a trauma. An earthquake can affect the psychological health of not only the people in the affected area, but also those who witness the event in general. These effects are often characterized by intense anxiety. Anxiety causes the nervous system to be on constant alert. This can lead to a heightened sensitivity to information from all kinds of triggers, which can be perceived as threats. For example, a person who has had a traumatic experience with an earthquake may overreact when they hear a loud noise on the street, regardless of the earthquake.

How can we recover the community’s mental health after the disaster?

Association is one of the most healing methods for society after a disaster. Listening to our own emotions, looking at our emotions closely and sharing what we feel with other people is one of the ways to recover our psychological resilience. In the process, it is also valuable to focus on the areas that we can control and act for what we can do in those areas rather than the points we cannot control. When we focus on the areas that we can create positive effects and act, the positive things that occur will be healthy for us and will contribute to our focus on the positive. As a result, our psychological resilience will be supported.

How can we be recovering from the collective trauma caused by this recent earthquake?

Earthquakes are often traumatic experiences for the whole society and there is a process that follows each traumatic experience. Although not all challenging experiences are traumatizing for everyone, such disasters that affect the whole society are challenging experiences for almost all of us. The society will first get over the shock phase and then everyone will try to cope with the effects of this disaster individually and collectively. Feeling weak, powerless, and scared is such normal emotions. During those times, sharing emotions is crucially. For instance, if a person needs to cry, s/he should cry and emotions should be expressed. Time to time, it might be useful to write down our feelings and share them with our beloved ones. Strong coping skills are important at this point. Receiving social support from people around and close to them has healing aspects. Sharing difficult experiences and emotions will have social benefits.

What are the ways of preparing children for earthquakes and how should we protect their mental earth during disasters?

Informing children about earthquakes is important, of course in true way. A 4–5-year-old child should be informed in different way, and 11-12 years one should be informed in different ways. So, if we do not provide age-appropriate information, we even may trigger anxiety while trying to inform children. Besides, we need to be prepared for the misinformation that children will receive from the environment. I would mention the importance of the social media content that children can be exposed at school or through social environment; that’s why, parents should talk with their children about the social media posts that they are exposed. On the other hand, parents should give place to their children in which they express their emotions freely. We need to open spaces for them to play more than ever before. Sometimes we can use play and stories to give information about the earthquake. Sometimes, in these traumatic processes after the earthquake, it will be useful to keep plenty of play and toy materials at their fingertips. It is healthy to let them play to express their emotions without any guidance. If the adult is anxious, it is necessary to share information and answer only as much as they ask, avoiding emotional details and reactions. If the adult is unable to calm himself/herself, this anxiety will spread to the children. In such cases, the adult should share his/her own sadness and anxiety with children other than very young children. For instance, the feelings can be expressed with such words, “I feel very anxious right now because there was an earthquake and buildings, and people were damaged. So, I feel sad and worried, but we are doing everything we can to be safe. We are all going to be safe, and we are going to get better.”

The process should be clarified by explaining that the reactions given after the earthquake are “normal” reactions to the situation. After an earthquake, it becomes difficult for children to feel safe. Children who were not directly exposed to the earthquake may also be worried that these situations may happen to them and their families. In such a situation, instead of pretending that nothing is wrong, the child should be told that his/her feelings and fears are natural, and it will be healthier for the child to be reassured that s/he is not alone, that his/her parents will always be there for him/her and protect them.

The big earthquake happened in Kahramanmaraş triggered our concerns about the expected Istanbul earthquake. What would you suggest for people living in and around Istanbul to cope with this anxiety?

In order to deal with anxiety, person can start by discovering coping methods that work well for them. It is important not to ignore our feelings and to share them with those close to us. What we feel is normal in the scenario we are in. An earthquake, as an event that threatens our integrity, is an anxiety-provoking situation. Accepting the reality of the earthquake and starting to be informed about it will be effective in controlling anxiety as it will reduce the uncertainty of the situation. Since we are an earthquake belt country, everyone can feel safer by taking the necessary precautions for themselves, and an increased sense of confidence will also be effective in reducing anxiety.

People can feel “desperate” in such situations like earthquakes. How can we deal with helplessness and similar feelings that we face in such situations?

Starting by accepting that it is normal to feel desperate and then focusing on what we can do will help to reduce this feeling. Although we may feel lonely and helpless, it is very important to take good care of ourselves physically. Being in a state of physical, mental and spiritual wholeness helps us to be useful to ourselves and our environment. If we are far away from the disaster area, we can send aid, being voluntary and help with each other’s that will help us transform the feeling of helplessness. If we are on earthquake zone, we can support people who are in areas that we well informed, whilst maintaining our calmness will also positively affect our well-being because sharing people’s feelings, extending a helping hand to them and the healing power of the bonds established in those times cannot be denied. It should also be kept in mind that the priority in this whole process of helping others is to protect our own psychological health, since a person can help other, if only s/he is well.