Christchurch: Mental Illness after an Earthquake

I’m too scared of bunk beds ‘cause it’s wobbly. I guess it was pretty traumatic for a three and a half year old to see her entire house falling inside. What does the wobbly remind you of? The shake shakes. You avoid a whole lot of stuff, you’re not yourself, you’re aware of it but part of you doesn’t want to know. I never actually thought of myself as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but then it’s really hard to think about who was I, what was I, what was life prior to the earthquakes? [Narrator] Babette Rothschild has spent her career counselling people who have experienced major trauma. Often PTSD develops well after an event. Babette's been watching news coverage of the Christchurch earthquake, aware that the city will be reaching a new crisis. PTSD doesn’t have a timeline, people can suffer from it for a year or two or for a lifetime, especially if they’re not able to click in their resources or if they don’t get the support they need and whatever it is that meets their needs. [Soft music] [Narrator] Christchurch New Zealand, three years on from the magnitude 7.1 earthquake and thousands of residents are still trapped in a cycle of frustration. There’s no resolution and no ability to rebuild their homes and their lives. Carmel Jaggar feels her mental health is as fragile as the foundations of her home. I never thought I had PTSD but when I look at the changes I think I must have because I know it’s consumed me, I know it’s affected my own ability to look after myself in a healthy way. If you’ve been severely impacted in that you have significant damage to your home or lost someone in the February event nothing is the same anymore. We’ve almost forgotten what normal is. [Narrator] At first glance Carmel’s house appears to have survived the quakes, but up close the damage is obvious. The reality is it’s separated into three pieces at the ground level. Although the damage may not look… it’s not impressive looking from the outside or the street; it’s resulted in pretty much complete structural failure of the home. You can feel the draft that comes through here, which isn’t so problematic in the summer, but is in the winter. Easiest thing to do with this is just fill that with newspaper and then I tape over it wherever I can feel draft. [Narrator] Carmel spent nearly three years trying to get an answer from her insurance company and the Earthquake Commission. [Carmel] The anger for me came about with my inability to progress my claim. We all like to think we’re in control of our lives and to a large extent we are, we know what we’re working towards, we can take care of our children, we go to work, we have a plan and we’re working to that plan. But when something like this happens and your home is severally damaged, other people step in, they are then in control. When the threat is whatever that thing is, is over, you’ve fought it off, you’ve escaped it, the system, the body, should go back to a normal balance what we call homeostasis. That happens with some people, it doesn’t happen with everybody; some people remain in that hyper altered traumatic stress state after the event, and that’s when we start talking about post-traumatic stress where the stress is still there post/after the event. For me it is almost as if my brain, my mind, is just a big black hole  and I become nonfunctioning, worrying about a myriad of things that I need to attend to, but it’s almost as if these chemicals in your body that actually make you jittery and you just haven’t got the ability to sit down, start something and keep at it until you’re finished. [Ariana] I can be sitting at home at night time and the next door neighbor will bring his wheelie bin in and the initial split second of the rumbling of the wheelie bin when you’re just about to go to sleep… yeah there are quite a few noises that can remind you of the earthquakes. [Narrator] Ariana’s still reminded of the horror her family lived through and she fears what might happen next. [Ariana] There is not a day that goes past that I don’t think about them them and think about what they’ve done. I don’t know whether we’re going to get another big one, but a part of me believes we are. You only need to drive down the road to be reminded that there are earthquakes when houses are being knocked down. [Narrator] Ariana and her partner were living in a rented home with their two children when the quake happened. The children’s father kicked us out, so I became a single, pregnant mum. I was working nightshift at the time and my work was badly damaged, so I had to give up work because the kids, especially Kyrah, wasn’t coping with mum working night. [Narrator] Now a single parent, Ariana is doing her best to provide stability for her three children. [Ariana] I have the attitude to suck it up and get on with life, but I’m definitely more stressed, I'm definitely more short fused, not as patient with the kids as what I used to be, especially when we’re shopping, I rush them through the mall because I want to get out of the mall because I don’t like being in there. [Narrator] Five-year-old Kyrah has clear symptoms of PTSD. The floor was shaking and I was too scared. [Interviewer] What were you scared about? Because I don’t like shake shakes. I guess it was traumatic for a three-and-half -year-old to see her entire house falling inside. And we had a fish tank, but the shake shake come'd and our tank fell. And mum stood on a piece of glass and it really hurted. [Soft music] [Bryon] You know, for me the first time I saw that just freaked me out really. [Narrator] Bryon Cope was already suffering from PTSD and depression before the earthquake struck. He’s avoided the town center in the last three years. [Bryon] Manchester Street is something that I’ve avoided, so two and a half years to drive up this street. It’s scary stuff really; I feel it in my body and in my heart. I’m quite anxious, I'm quite apprehensive, I’ve got flashes of stuff going through my mind as I’m talking to you about things I saw in the quake, stories that I heard, ‘what ifs’ as well, my palms are starting to sweat and I’m getting quite uncomfortable. [Narrator] In acute phases of trauma, Bryon can’t even leave his house. It’s like it happened yesterday. If I remind myself of that at 2 o'clock in the morning or if that thought pops in, I feel exactly like I do now, and I feel exactly like I did when the earthquakes were happening, so there is just that… there’s no separation of time or location. So, yeah… it’s… yeah its scary stuff. [Babette] Sometimes it takes a very tough person to be able to share their feelings or acknowledge their feelings or have the truth of their feelings. I do think that it doesn’t mean that people have to have a big cathartic episode. What I think is important is very sane making is to acknowledge the truth. [Narrator] Bryon has spent the last three years trying to pull himself out of the depression while managing the new stress caused by the earthquake. He’s just started taking his daughter, Chandra, to the mall again. So did you find a shop that you wanted to go to? - Yeah. Okay, was it Tempt?... Well, there’s a chair out here so I might wait outside is that okay? - Yep. I can’t affect her with what I go through. And so for me I can feel this way if I stay at home, even though it’s heightened if I come out, I just manage it and know that it’s temporary and if I can find some reason to come out of my comfort zone, and with Chand wanting to go to a mall because she’s a teenager, I’ll do that, she doesn’t have to be inhibited because of my illness. I have to have something to eat soon because that will make me feel better. Do you always freak out when you go to the mall? Always freak out. - Really? - Yeah. I don’t notice it. Because I hide it from you. Why don’t you just say, ‘No we’re not going to the mall?’ Because that’s not what you want to do. We don’t have to rush, we can take our time, but I don’t want to be here too long if that’s okay with you? - I know. I can tell her that I’m quite scared, that I’m nervous or whatever before we go. But I have learnt to live from her experiences, so there has been a reciprocal relationship and reciprocal healing, she understands unwellness quite good, she knows how to deal with it. It’s tempting to get more and more isolated, more and more restricted, that the world gets smaller and smaller around you, and that’s not a really good idea. Of course you have to respect where your limits are, but maybe challenge the limits a little bit or at least come up to them so that you’re staying as active as possible in your community, you’re staying as involved as possible in your family, even at the same time that you’re healing from your own wounds. [Narrator] People often comment that kids are resilient, but its clear Kyrah can’t put the horror of the earthquakes to rest either. Ariana isn’t a psychologist, but she’s trying to make sense of her daughter’s new behavior since the quake. [Ariana] She has nightmares, they use to be nightly and progressively they’ve become less, so now they’re maybe once to twice a month. As I’m putting them in bed we have a chat about the day. With Kyrah in particular before I leave her, I always say remember happy thoughts, and just remind her to think think about butterflies and dolphins and fairies and whatever else, which is my idea of pushing happy thoughts or nice ideas in her head before she goes to sleep. Remember you have to think about nice things because it’s bed. You can think about nice butterflies, and fairies, and dolphins jumping through the waves. This is what it used to be every night, just the challenge of getting her into bed. She’s getting better over time she’s gotten better, but it’s not the whole night. She likes to have someone with her; we bought her a cat, which did help, it’s helped a lot with the initial bedtime, but just not the continuous through the night Night night baby. [Narrator] A few months ago Carmel finally settled her insurance claim. Despite having more clarity about her future, she still suffers from PTSD. [Carmel] The worry and the stress kicks in, and the frustration about the lack of communication, and you simply can’t switch off from that because you’re home is so integral to you, it is your safe place and you’re not feeling safe, possibly physically not feeling safe at times, but also emotionally, financially, you’re not feeling safe in your home either. So again that disrupts your sleep patterns because when you go to bed to sleep there’s nothing to take your mind off those worries, and that’s when they come home to haunt you. And you wake up and you almost feel as though you are back in that place and you’ve got to remind yourself, ‘No that was a while ago, it’s okay, you’re fine now, you know what’s happening.’ It’s been such a long time for so many people, four years from September - you don’t get over that overnight just because your insurance company tells you you’re a rebuild. Your body and mind has to learn again what is normal and what is healthy. Carmel’s symptoms would be intrusive memories of whatever the event was either visually or auditory… it could be in the body where a person continues to feel things in their body that remind them of the traumatic event. It can also be hyper arousal, which means the nervous system continues to be wired and hyped up which makes it hard to sleep makes it hard to concentrate. People have what they call hyper startle reflex, which goes along with the hyper arousal where even a small sound and they’re jumping – reacting with fear. [Narrator] Ariana has taken Kyrah to see a number of counselors through a free service for earthquake survivors. She’s constantly being told there is nothing they can do to help. As a mother you feel like you should be able to protect them even though its mother nature and you can’t protect against mother nature to an extent. But I’ve always felt that she should have had help before now… and continuously been told that, ‘No we can’t help her,’ it’s a constant slap in the face and where do you go from there? So yeah just the guilt of not knowing how to help her I guess. I’m extremely desperate to help her because I have a fear of what it’s doing long term, not so much now, my fear is when she’s older what fear is she going to fester in her mind from the earthquakes, and it's the fear of loneliness now with her and needing that comfort with her at nighttime and now she has a fear of the toilet which is progressively getting worse. I just want her to be a kid again. [Narrator] Bryon’s panic attacks haven’t completely gone away but he’s found effective ways of coping. [Bryon] When I have a panic attack or something what I do is I slowly remind myself of my breath. Why I use my breath as a stopping mechanism for my anxiety or when I’m unwell is because its with me all the time, I don’t need anything – I can do it on the bus, I can do it sitting on a chair... it's with you no matter what you’re doing. And knowing that it’s a cyclic process that there are certain things that I can do and I encourage other people to do to minimize the impact of those feeling and to not feel like that for as long as I did or as anybody did, prior to having that information. [Narrator] Bryon works for the free non-government organization Depression Support Network, helping others in his community who are suffering from depression and trauma. Being a peer support worker, what I can do is let people know that they’re okay no matter how screwed up their life seems, that there is hope out there, that they may have forgotten a whole lot of good stuff in their life, they may have forgotten some successes, they may be really unwell. But so am I and I can actually be alongside somebody and just let them know that they don’t have to change the world, they can just acknowledge that they don’t want to feel the way that they’re feeling at the moment. - Hi - Hi Ariana, how are you? - Good thank you how are you? - Bryon from Depression Support Network. [Narrator] When Ariana first heard about Bryon’s service she thought she’d give it a go… they’re meeting for the first time today. Thank you very much Ariana for inviting me into your home and firstly I’d like to acknowledge how hard it was for you to ask for help and not many people do that, so whatever happens after this it’s your choice, but no one can take that decision away from you, that you did make that decision to ask for some help and to see what else is out there for you. And so, for us it's around being responsive to that, of telling you a little bit about what we do, which is working one-on-one and group work and we support people who are experiencing depression and a little bit of unease with whatever they feel is right for them. I haven’t got all the answers but hopefully we can work together to be able to find something that’s going to be able to help Kyrah and yourself, I think. So even though you’re still going and doing what you have to do as a mum, is that there maybe some things that we can work on together that can make that stronger and create that foundation as well. I think for me, Ariana, is that I can make a couple of phone calls, we can find out where you sit with getting some support around allowing Kyrah to talk to somebody… Is that something you would like to do? - Yeah definitely. [Narrator] Bryon has recognized this young mother needs help too; he’s invited her to one of his fortnightly Depression Support Groups. [Bryon] From the time that I’ve been at Depression Support Network, the strength of hearing how you feel for different reasons about the fatigue, the not sleeping, how tired, how hard the battles with the medical professions, medication… if you hear that from somebody else it normalizes your own experience and it breaks down that isolation. [Narrator] Support groups have been essential for Carmel's road to recovery as well, instead of attending meetings; she’s found her community online. [Carmel] The Facebook groups that I’m a member of have been really integral in supporting me through the hardest times. I have actually gone onto those Facebook groups and I’ve been quite honest about how I’m feeling and I’ve posted it up and said I don’t like myself at the moment because of who I’ve become. And the support you get back from that is absolutely amazing and it actually does help. It’s like having somebody sit next to you and give you a hug and say it’s all right I understand, it’s okay for you to feel like that, we will get through. [Bryon] Well thank you very much everybody for coming along today and I’d like to welcome Ariana it’s her first group. Briefly if people would like to introduce themselves, why they came to DSN and what their journey’s been like to date. I’m Faye, I’m one of the matriarchs, I’ve been here for about seven years and I’ve found the group absolutely wonderful. I haven’t had counseling for five and a half years, but just the group itself and the trust and people that understand depression because all of that are here have either been there or are going there and it goes up and down. And when you’re down the people are here and when you’re good the people are here. And just that whole not feeling isolated – the feeling that there are other people in there with you, even when you’re not at group you know there are other people that are rooting for you and are really willing you on, so it’s just been literally a lifesaver for me, it’s just been great. I’m Ariana, I’m a single mum of three little girls and the earthquakes have probably effected me more than I would have liked and it’s only been recently that I’ve acknowledged that there was a problem. I had a very bad day one day and it made me realise how bad I was getting. [Babette] Recovery from PTSD has everything to do with recognising that the trauma is over and I survived. Some people recover from trauma by taking a vacation. Some people recover from trauma by going to church. Some people recover from trauma by doing volunteer work. Some people recover from trauma by going to therapy with the MDR... Some people recover from trauma by going to therapy with psychoanalysis... there's just so many ways and so individual, and I think the art of the science is to help people find what is the key for them. [Narrator] Ariana has decided to nurture Kyrah’s interest in art. She thinks this might be a way to help her daughter. Hi, how are you doing? Come on in I’m Claire, welcome to Go Potty Ceramics Studio. So this is your table here. [Ariana] I’m trying to do more family orientated things to have that fun time with the kids, because they’re so innocent in it all, I think it’s important to concentrate on making sure that they are still being children, in which of course them laughing brings laughter into the house, so I think family outings and things like that are important to keep a focus on. [children talking and laughing] I’ve written… love, laugh, life and happiness, which are my hopes for the future. [Babette] One of the most important things to remember, I think, and that I would like for all of my colleagues to remember that I think should humble us to remember… is that people have been surviving trauma for thousands and thousands and thousands of years before pychology, psychoanalysis, trauma therapy etc… and for the most part humans have all sorts of tools and resources for managing these kinds of incidents. Of course through the thousands of years there have been some people who have fallen through the cracks and not been helped by the things that were available, but for the most part we are resilient. The quakes have given me, I think, a bit more strength to be able to do a lot more because I’m doing a lot more safely for me as opposed to getting stressed out, and that’s surrounding myself with good people, doing things that are good for me and remembering those small things. Generally overall I’ve become a much more confident person and willing to stand up for what I think is right and what is my truth. And also, I think although it’s impacted negatively on the children in that I haven’t been there for them emotionally or psychologically, I do know that they have seen what I’ve done, they've watched what I've done, they've seen the price I've personally paid for it and they know the price they have paid for it but they've also seen how important it is, so that’s a life lesson for my children. There's been a few positive outcomes in the sense that I’ve become myself again, whereas prior to the earthquakes I was very controlled by somebody else. So that’s my main thing from the earthquakes. Like I’m quite thankful for them to some extent if that’s the right word to use just in the sense that it’s made me be independent and I’ve had to believe in myself when things have been really bad I’ve had to carry on because of the children have needed me to. But through doing that I now know that I can get through what I’ve been through so I’ll be able to get through the next challenge.


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