Survivors suffer from mental trauma

By Hu Yongqi and Cui Jia (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-12 08:02
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ZHOUQU, Gansu - Survivors of the deadly landslide in Zhouqu will suffer more mental stress than those who escaped death after the 8.0-magnitude Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan in May 2008, a psychologist told China Daily on Aug. 11, 2010.

"A landslide kills instantly. People are suffocated by mud, so relatives of the victims will be more traumatized because they know their loved ones have little or no chance of surviving," said Liu Li, a psychologist who began providing psychological counseling to the survivors as soon she arrived in Zhouqu with 13 other psychologists on Monday, one day after the disaster happened early Sunday morning.

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Liu, who also helped Wenchuan earthquake survivors pull though tough times in 2008, said that after the earthquake, some people survived for days trapped in the rubble. This gave the survivors hope and time to gradually accept the cruel reality, she said.

In addition to physical health problems, landslide victims might show psychological problems including flashbacks, insomnia, loss of appetite, intense grief and suicidal thoughts, she said.

"We cannot let people who luckily survived the disaster lose their lives because of trauma," Liu said.

Sun Jiying, a 17-year-old student from Zhouqu No 1 middle school, was among the 68 people who were receiving help from the psychologists in the county.

"We found her constantly staring at the remains of her school without moving a muscle. She also kept calling out four names," said Mi Deng, leader of the medical team.

Mi later found out that the names Sun kept repeating belonged to four classmates she had chatted and had fun with the afternoon before the landslide. Those four have all been confirmed dead.

"Sun now has suicidal thoughts because it all happened so quickly for her. She couldn't accept that her friends have passed away. She doesn't know how to deal with it," Mi said. "Our main task is to give survivors hope to move on, which is easy to say and so difficult to achieve after such a horrible event."

After several hours of counseling, Sun's psychological condition was still not stable but she at least was willing to talk.

"We concentrate more on helping people who have a history of mental illness and those who had mood swings after the landslide," Mi said. "We will closely monitor people with suicidal thoughts like Sun."

Mi and his team members also have been busy training 25 local volunteers the basics of psychological treatment methods because the survivors' mental health will be a long-term job.

"We really need fully trained professionals here. Many volunteers are full of great enthusiasm, but they lack basic psychological treatment experience and skills relevant for such a major disaster. Also, they cannot commit themselves to providing long-term service. They might cause more hurt than help for some survivors," Mi added.

Zhang Guoxin, vice-director of the emergency office of the Health Ministry, promised at a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday to provide landslide victims with timely mental care.

In 2002 the Ministry of Health began mandating that local governments should provide mental health care for victims after large-scale disasters. The ministry also suggests that psychological first aid should be available for 50 percent of the victims.