UCF Knights talk mental health after Hurricane Irma

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) offers counseling services after Hurricane Irma struck UCF's campus in the late night hours on Sunday, Sept. 17. 

Hurricane Irma recovery consisted of students relocating back to Orlando, cleaning up debris and returning to normalcy, but also stabilizing their mental health after a week off of school.

“[Natural disasters] destabilize and threaten your primal needs like food, shelter, safety and security,” said Dr. Karen Hofmann, a licensed psychologist and the director of UCF’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). “It is normal and natural to feel some level of anxiety because it is about your survival."

Hurricane Irma arrived Sept. 17 with strong gusts of wind uprooting trees along with emotions of anxiety and stress for some UCF students.

For Peyton McFarlane, a sophomore pre-clinical major, anxiety was her normal and natural response to Irma along with many other UCF students. The worry set in for McFarlane, who is from South Florida, when she thought about her family who decided to stay in their homes.

“It was kind of hard to put the hurricane to the back of my mind mainly because my family back home was supposed to be hit and they could have possibly been suffering,” McFarlane, 20, said.

With many UCF students fleeing to be with family, some decided to stay because there was no other option.

“I don’t drive, so if I had to leave I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere,” Megan Markham, 21, a senior film major, said.

For Markham, this ignited some anxiety and stress due to transportation issues and past experiences.

“During Hurricane Matthew, I had a bad experience when dealing with my anxiety and I was anxious about repeating that experience again,” Markham added.

Others stayed because they felt it was safer here than elsewhere.

“The fact that I [was] all the way in Orlando and all my loved ones [were] back home was the number one thing that made me anxious. Because if something bad were to happen, I'd rather be there with them. Although it was environmentally safer here, I’d be more at peace and feel emotionally content there just by being with them,” McFarlane said.

Anxiety and stress are emotions that can last before, during, and after the hurricane. The after-effects of a hurricane not only cause physical damage to the community that it engulfed but also emotional damage. That is where coping mechanisms come into dealing with the aftermath.

“Talking and connecting with others is the best resiliency coping skill we have,” Hofmann said.

Her tips were simple: talk and connect, tell your story, stay away from media, reestablish a routine, enact your self-care plan, display gratitude and reach out to loved ones.

McFarlane couldn’t agree more with the last coping mechanism.

“Talking to my parents and all my family and friends really calmed me down and helped me get back into the ease of things afterward,” McFarlane said.

Markham took another route of managing stress by enacting her self-care plan by keeping herself busy and helping others in the community.

“It’s nice to put that excess energy into something that is worthwhile such as volunteering in a community that needs it,” Markham said.

Coping mechanisms are important to dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster, according to Hofmann.

CAPS, a place designed for students who need someone to talk to, was unavailable the days following the hurricane campus closures from Sept. 7 to Sept. 17. During that time, 125 new appointments, 479 on-going appointments, and 77 group screenings were canceled, Hofmann said.

Natural disasters can leave students feeling in a state of anxiety and stress far after it has passed. Hofmann encourages students to reach out to CAPS for additional support in regard to the emotional effects of Hurricane Irma.

“If you feel like when the threat is dissipated and you’re still experiencing some kind emotional cognitive [difficulties] ... that gives you a red flag of ‘maybe I need to talk to somebody,'" Hofmann said.

Students who would like to schedule an appointment with CAPS can call (407) - 823 - 2811. 

UPDATE: Previous version of this story did not include information on how to contact CAPS

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