In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Dr. Debra Atkisson and Dr. Ken Hopper, both psychiatrists and associate professors at the Burnett School of Medicine at TCU, discuss how flooding can affect a person’s mental health and how people can cope afterward.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Alexis Allison: OK, first, I just want to know personally how the rain affected both of you on Aug. 22. We’ll start with you, Dr. Atkisson. Can you tell us a little bit about your day?

Dr. Debra Atkisson: So, the first thought I had was, I’m so glad we’re receiving the rain because we’ve needed it so badly. I live a little west of Fort Worth, and there have been a lot of fires near my area. So it was a relief to see it. Then, as the downpour commenced, I began to think, I have to actually need to travel in this. And so I began to think ahead, as to the different roads I take to determine, am I going to be in a low spot? I mean, do I need to rethink my route? So I started trying to quickly plan ahead. And then it was getting out in the rain and the downpour and noticing the reactions of everyone around me. It did make me a little bit anxious, I’ll admit that.

Allison: Thank you for sharing. Dr. Hopper, what about you?

Dr. Ken Hopper: Yeah, I was doing some work from home. I start my day with my clinic, and I do that over a Microsoft Teams platform. So as the rain started picking up and we noticed it was going to start flooding, I was thankful that I was doing remote work. And then, one of the people at my house came and said, water is coming into your bathroom on the other side. So I got to pivot — finish the meeting and go dig trenches. I have to say, this was my first time to dig trenches. And so I was taking out gravel and dirt to really prevent there from being some modest flooding. So I got to be out there and be my own crew yesterday.

Dr. Debra Atkisson, left, and Dr. Ken Hopper, right. (Courtesy | Burnett School of Medicine at TCU)

Allison: Thank you for sharing. I know that we talk about floods impacting a lot of different sectors of city life, but maybe not as often about how floods impact a person’s health or a community’s health. Dr. Hopper, you can start with this one. How can flooding like we experienced yesterday impact someone’s health?

Ken Hopper: Yes, well, it really can affect both mental health and physical health. In fact, when I was out standing with my flip flops on, trying to dig that trench, I was wondering, if there’s any sort of pathogen, actually. I wonder if there’s something in here, like, fecal contents from somebody’s animal, that might really make me get sick. So flood waters (can) carry some sort of pathogen

What can flood water contain?

  • Downed power lines
  • Human and animal waste
  • Hazardous waste
  • Coal ash waste
  • Physical objects like cars or debris
  • Wild or stray animals like rats and snakes

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

But then, in addition to that, we have the emotional effect. I, luckily, was able to divert my time over to doing something about my house. But what if I had not? I would be sitting helplessly by, as I’m having some water come into the bedroom, in the bathroom and so forth. So not being able to do something yesterday, if you’re at work or somewhere else, would be an automatic kind of trauma, but also watching your house really have damage and being helpless about that obviously has an impact on our psyche.

Allison: Thank you. Dr. Atkisson, do you have anything to add?

Atkisson: Yes, I do. I don’t think any of us expected to have the flooding that we had yesterday. It catches us off guard, so we have that emotional reaction. I think the other thing we often don’t think about: An event like this can be a triggering event. For some people who say, survived a flood — and I couldn’t help but think about some of the people I saw after Katrina — this might cause them to remember or re-experience some of that feeling of helplessness. As I listened to Dr. Hopper talk, I thought, I can see where someone would feel really helpless if they were sitting in their home and seeing water come in, and how that might make someone think back to a previous experience that could have been life-threatening.

Allison: Dr. Atkisson, I know that you work specifically with children. I’m wondering if you were to treat a patient for trauma after flooding, what would that look like for you?

Atkisson: So, one of the guidelines I’m actually going to bring up is something that the Uniformed Services University puts together. They are a university for all the branches of the military. They actually have some nice guides on their website. I also want to bring up for anyone listening, that the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has resources as well as the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and the National Institutes of Mental Health

But what I would say is going back with some of their very simple, straightforward, what they call emotional first aid: Encourage them to talk about what they experienced, but not just remembering it cognitively, but how it felt emotionally. And then encourage them to realize at this moment that they are all right. And that there are adults taking care of them who are all right. 

The other thing I would say is establish routines back as quickly as possible, get them back into an unexpected daily routine, because remember, they got thrown off with the flooding and with the anxiety about that, and with the anticipation that something bad could happen. 

Ken Hopper: (For adults), it’s really a very similar process that you go through — this process of talking and sharing, not cutting somebody off as they go through the event in great detail. And this is one of the benefits of quick debriefing or emotional first aid, and being able to then look at the emotions and then getting into some problem-solving, moving it into, So how did you cope? How would you cope? What if this were to happen again? 

I will give a strong caveat that, of course, people who have gone through trauma really probably ought to reach out to their professional, the professional that they’ve seen in the past. Perhaps they could do some preventative work to really go a little bit further than perhaps, the kind of work that they might do with themselves or with a friend. And so having professionals around, it’s not a bad idea, particularly if one has had trauma, or past emotional diagnoses of any sort.

Allison: Well, I know that Dr. Atkisson shared a few resources for us. Dr. Hopper, do you have any additional resources you would recommend for people? 

Ken Hopper: When you’re trying to bolster, ‘OK, how do I not have this fear happen again? It’s around problem-solving. ‘What do I do with my house and my current situation?’ That kind of concrete action is very helpful to really prevent us from feeling helpless. And so, looking on the FEMA website, looking on the Texas governmental sites for any sorts of resources. There typically are all kinds of resources to … help a person recover. 

For example, in my story, I’m going to make sure that I have somebody who puts in a bit of a gutter there. And that will give me a sense of wellbeing and safety so that every time I see a storm, I won’t be thinking, I’m going to be needing to dig a trench again. And in addition to that, it’s really looking at and taking care of your health. But having a plan: What would I do the next time? That would be the other step. 

Allison: Thank you both so much. Is there anything else that you’d like to add or share? Dr. Atkisson, we can start with you. 

Atkisson: Don’t ever underestimate the impact of something that comes at us in an unexpected manner. This is true for the flooding just like it is for tornadoes, or other disasters that can happen, the fires that I mentioned earlier. So we’ve all noticed that we’ve had a lot of disaster experiences in the last few years. Don’t ever underestimate the toll that can take on you. 

And I would say to everybody who might have felt some anxiety, might have been trying to rush to work, kids who felt nervous at school, all those sorts of things. Take a few moments to relax and de-stress. Really make sure that you do some things to put yourself in a calm and relaxed position and reassure yourself that you’re not in that situation (anymore). So that gives your brain an opportunity to get back and reset to baseline.

Allison: Thank you. Dr. Hopper?

Ken Hopper: Yeah, I would say that that goes across the board: Realize you did get through it. No. 1, you survived. You are here and really hang upon that as saying, I can be resourceful. And then building upon that resourcefulness for the future by doing some planning. Planning about what you do with your immediate situation and then for the future.

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis Allison

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....