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‘Psychological Aftershocks’ Among Disaster Survivors With AM-SF Quake Bjt

October 20, 1989

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Northern California’s killer earthquake forced survivors to face the possibility of death, triggering ″psychological aftershocks″ that ranged from relief and disbelief to anxiety, anger, nightmares and shock.

″It’s like the rug is pulled out from under you - the firm stance you have in the world gets shaken,″ said psychologist Daniel Weiss of Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute at the University of California, San Francisco.

″It forces you to confront your own mortality: that you don’t live forever, that bad things happen to good people - sometimes for no reason at all,″ Weiss said Thursday during a telephone interview.

Distressed survivors of Tuesday’s quake are calling San Francisco Bay Area psychiatrists and psychologists for advice, but clinics are not yet swamped.

″They’re not going to show up for a few more days. You’ve got to take care of the dead first,″ said Dr. Lenore Terr, a psychiatrist in San Francisco. She said people expect earthquakes in the Bay Area so it may not be as traumatizing as other disasters.

″For the vast bulk of people who came through relatively unscathed, there are what I call psychological aftershocks,″ Weiss said.

Symptoms include jumpiness, irritability, nightmares, emotional numbness and detachment, recurrent images of disaster, difficulty concentrating and sleeping, and fear of entering buildings or double-deck freeways like the one in Oakland that collapsed to cause most of the quake’s fatalities, Terr said.

″We are getting lots of calls - people not sure what to do, how to act, how to handle their feelings,″ said Susan Garritson, assistant director at Langley Porter, San Francisco’s largest psychiatric hospital. ″We have had people walking in who are unable to sit still, restless, looking physically shaky and saying they feel shaky and need someone to talk to.″

Some are even suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome, she said.

People who survived unscathed often display disbelief of surrounding destruction, followed by relief, then guilt that they lived while others died, Weiss said. For those who had relatives die or homes destroyed, ″questions arise like ‘Why me? What did I do to deserve this?’

″There is no one to get angry at, and sometimes feelings of anger at having been victimized are put onto other innocent people.″

Children also are vulnerable.

″It will be a long time before the children come out of this,″ said TV psychologist Joyce Brothers. ″There will be nightmares, eating disorders. They are scared. But as soon as the parents behave in a calm manner the children will behave.″

Claudia Morain of Palo Alto said her children - Tony, 7, and Clara, 4 - weren’t seriously distressed, but the quake made them want to sleep in the same room with her and they paid excessive attention to quake safety advice.

″They got anxious. They decided the only place to be was under the butcher-block table in the kitchen,″ Morain said. ″They ate dinner under it.″

Children younger than 3 ″may be a little bit more anxious, a little more clingy. If their parents are upset, their children will be upset,″ said Dr. Glen Elliott, director of child and adult psychiatry at Langley Porter.

Four- to 8-year-olds also need reassurance, he said. Their main symptoms are anxiety and a need for explanations about the quake. Children older than 9 are frightened by abstract possibilities, like awareness they might have been under the collapsed freeway, so ″they are more likely to get very upset, to start crying, get very withdrawn.

″They may have trouble getting to sleep or may have nightmares.″

People should use distress constructively, in a way that reassures their kids, by preparing for quakes and buying supplies, Weiss and Elliott said.

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