Psychological Problems at Merapi Evacuation Camp

A natural disaster not only causes physical damage to lives and properties, it also leaves a mark in the mental stage of the affected. Due to less obvious nature of the psychological symptoms, many of these go unnoticed, in great contrast to the very recognizable physical symptoms such as severe burns or respiratory distress. Furthermore, the impact of the disaster on mental stage has a long lasting effects, for months or even years. Thus, it is very important for the society to understand this unspoken needs of the victims of the disaster.

My encounter with the Psychological Team in the Merapi Evacuation Camp (Posko Maguwoharjo) was an eye opener. The massive numbers of evacuees has raised various psychological problems to both the victims and the helping volunteers. The VOLUNTEERS also suffered psychological problems? YES, and I will explain it in the next few paragraphs.

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(Irene and Aisyah, who are very keen to interact with the children)

According to Ibu Nina, a psychologist from the District Health Office (Dinas Kesehatan Kabupaten Sleman), the evacuees can be categorized into 2 groups, which suffered different problems. The first group is made of people who are the direct victims of the volcano eruption. I shall call them as the “victims” from here on. The victims are the ones who stay in close proximity with the volcano, whose houses and property (livestock, farms) were destroyed by the eruption. Some of them even lose their loved ones in the disaster.

On the other hand, the second group is made of people who are evacuated due to the expansion of the danger zone up to 20km. They were instructed to leaves their premises and sheltered at the evacuation camp to avoid the pyroclastic flow (awan panas) that could possibly strike their houses. The pyroclastic flow is mixture of hot gases and dust, which can burn (up to 500 Celsius)  whatever material that is in its path. I shall call the second group as “evacuees” from here on.

Many of the victims were diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. The victims were feeling sad about the loss of property and lives. Some of them were very moody and lost interest in any social activities. They were depressed and not interested in conversations. Besides, many of the victims are feeling anxious and distressed. They were worrying for the future because they no longer own a house to stay or have no modal to restart their agriculture activities. The extremely crowded condition in the evacuation camp rendered them restless. The lack of privacy and failure to adapt to the new environment contribute much to the anxiety.

Ibu Nina also reported that a few of the victims were feeling very scared when the reported flashed their camera. It is very common for the volcano eruption to be accompanied by light strike. The frequent flash reminded them of the fear during the eruption. These victims that suffered post-traumatic stress disorder were given counsel to ease their phobia.

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Meanwhile, the second group, the evacuees, has a lighter problem. Their houses were still intact and they were waiting for government instruction to return to their home. Some of them showed sign of anxiety and stress. Usually these anxious people will have sleeping difficulty and may wake up often throughout the night. A common problem worth noting is psychosomatic symptoms, which refers to the expression of physical symptoms that originate from the mental state. For example, headache that is due to stress; stomach ache due to anxiety; ingestion ( dyspepsia and diarrhea) due to stress.

After understanding about the minor mental problems from Ibu Nina, I screened for major mental problems. “Ibu, so far is there anybody that committed suicide or going crazy (psychotic), running around shouting or behave weirdly like seeing things (hallucination) ?” I asked.

“So far nobody has committed suicide. The severely depressed patients are checked by our psychology team worker. We approached them, talked to them and tried to make them speak out their problems. Usually the patients become better after voicing out. There was some psychotic episodes, but those are patients with psychotic history. So their illness is not directly due to the eruption. They forgot to take the drug due to urgent evacuation. These people have been referred to psychiatric ward in Dr. Sardjito Hospital. As for the hallucination, no such cases are reported”, replied Ibu Nina patiently.

“So Ibu, is there anything we can help as volunteers for the psychological post?”, I asked.

“Of course you can! Just talk with the people here! Especially the elderly. They are always yearning for interaction. Sometimes just by listening to their stories, you can make their days! If you do notice some problems with them, you can report to the psychological post. If you have problem with Java language, you may shift your attention to the adults and children. Most of them speak the Indonesian Language”, Ibu Nina explained.

My dear friends, have we found out how to contribute as volunteers? It’s time for some chit chat !

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