After the quake: coping with the psychological costs

December 21, 2016

After the quake: coping with the psychological cost

In the wake of another devastating earthquake, New Zealand is counting the mental and emotional cost.

New Zealand’s Earthquake Support Line has received more than 750 calls in the six weeks following the November 14 Kaikoura Earthquakes, with callers reporting sleeplessness, anxiety and concern for children.

The service’s lead psychiatrist Dr David Codyre says most simply need some simple advice, reassurance and “normalising of their experiences.”

“They need to know know that it’s normal: that our evolutionary stress response is on red alert for marauding tigers,” says Codyre. “Know these symptoms will pass. Keep to routines, including around sleep. And if it’s escalating, reach out quickly.”

At midnight on November 14, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook New Zealanders awake.

The quake was felt in a wide arc, from Christchurch in the centre of the South Island as far away as Auckland near the top of the North Island.

Two people lost their lives and the quake caused widespread damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure in small coastal towns such as Kaikoura and the capital city of Wellington, 150 kilometres to the north.

Hundreds of aftershocks, some measuring up to 6.1 in magnitude, followed in the next few days and weeks, keeping people in high-stress fight-or-flight mode, gripped by the uncertainty of what might come.

For a country still coming to grips with the tragedy of the February 2011 earthquake, this latest incident – the largest quake recorded in New Zealand since 2009 – only heightens already fragile emotions.

Measuring the impact

Measuring the psychological toll of a natural disaster is difficult – people are often reluctant to talk about it, or shrug off what they’re feeling because they consider others worse off. But Sir Peter Gluckman, the NZ Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, estimates between five and 10 per cent of people in the worst affected areas will need significant ongoing support.

In a recently released briefing paper – “The Psychosocial Consequences of the Kaikoura Earthquakes” – Gluckman says the emotional effects of a disaster can cause as much suffering as physical injury, destruction of infrastructure and loss of income.

“We can be certain that anger, frustration and despair will be exhibited by a significant percentage of the population,” Gluckman says. “Some of the population may experience ongoing feelings of insecurity, uncertainty, loss of trust in scientific information, continued hypervigilance and disturbed sleep.”

Lack of control is another major issue for those affected.

“Earthquakes are disempowering events over which individuals have no control, and which may leave them with essentially no control over how they live,” he notes. “… regaining some sense of control over one’s life is central to the recovery process.”

The report identifies women – especially those with small children – children themselves and people with a history of mental illness or poor social adjustment as being the most vulnerable.

Young children aged one to five years may be afraid of separation, strangers, “monsters” or animals, and may experience withdrawal and sleep disturbances. Children aged between six and 11 might engage in repetitious storytelling or re-enact parts of the disaster.

“Sleep disturbances, fear of the dark, irritability, aggressive behaviour, angry outbursts, separation anxiety, school avoidance and general changes in behaviour, mood and personality may appear," Gluckman says.

The impact on business

As Gluckman points out, the psychological impact can be worsened by secondary stressors such as dislocation from homes or workplaces, and the economic insecurity resulting from loss of business, infrastructure damage, and affected buildings.

“Building safety is an issue for more than one in six civil servants in Wellington, and countless in private industry,” he says.

Recently, the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (WREDA) conducted an online survey of local businesses to see what kind of support was needed most.

“Of the businesses that reported concerns one of the most common was the psychological effects on staff,” WREDA’s business-growth and innovation general manager, David Jones, says. He organised a free resilience and stress-management workshop for business owners and managers.

Led by Jacqui Wall from Umbrella, a national team of clinical psychologists focused on employee wellbeing, the workshop was attended by about 50 business leaders.

They described staff who can’t concentrate, are irritable, forgetful, making errors, low on initiative, taking sick leave, arriving later and leaving earlier.

Some staff disliked their temporary building or working from home; one staff member had refused to return to the central-city office, fearful of aftershocks.

Wall says these are all normal responses and offered suggestions on how to help.

If a staff member is withdrawing, she says, address it immediately, being understanding and non-judgemental.

“Ask calm, open-ended questions like ‘How are you?’, ‘What might be helpful?’ or ‘Are you open to looking at some support?’”

The managing director of specialist HR firm Employee Solution Service, Michael Hempseed, has also given many business leaders advice about handling staff post-quake.

He recently posted a free, two-part webinar called “Managing and supporting staff post-quake”. Hempseed has talked to many financially stressed business owners. “They’re worried they’ll lose their business, home or both,” he says.

Where to get help

The easiest way to access front-line support is by calling the Earthquake Support Line (0800 777 846) which is staffed by mental-health experts.

They connect people with appropriate services, from free counselling to the anxiety helpline (0800 269 4389). For details, visit

Information on financial support and advice is also available from the Earthquake Support Line. If your business is suffering because of the quake, consider seeing a financial adviser or your bank manager.

Many banks are offering various forms of help, including emergency overdrafts, access to term deposits without penalty, restructuring business loans and renegotiating mortgages.

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