Disaster brings chronic problems to light

Over the past couple of weeks our hearts have all gone out to the millions of people affected by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast.

We have heard countless stories of people who have lost everything and are struggling just to stay alive when there is a serious shortage of food and safe drinking water and everything is surrounded in a fetid soup of floodwater.

Truly, this is a devastating time for everyone in that region of the United States.

However, for those individuals dealing with chronic problems such as poverty, addiction and illness, this disaster has been even more traumatic and has brought these serious problems to the forefront of the international media.

Scenes of lawlessness and anarchy on the flooded streets of New Orleans are often leading news coverage of this disaster and are evidence of problems and desperation that run much deeper than the current disaster. The extent of the looting, shooting, killing and lack of cooperation with authorities and rescue personnel were an unexpected complication in the attempts to help the victims of the disaster.

In medicine, when an acute illness is contracted on top of a chronic one, it is much more serious than the same acute illness in an otherwise healthy individual. It is referred to as “acute on chronic”.

The same is true in the larger spheres of life. The stress of dealing with such a devastating time is hard for anyone to cope with, but for those with existing chronic problems, it becomes even worse. When someone is barely hanging on during the course of everyday life, it is dangerous to add disaster to the mix.

This disaster has exposed the soft underbelly of American society. In spite of being the richest and most powerful country on earth there are millions of drug addicted and mentally ill people living on the streets. They are evident in every major urban centre. The ready availability of guns and a vast population of alienated people who have nothing to lose is a recipe for anarchy.

All of this is yet another argument for the importance of dealing with chronic problems when times are good so that in the tough times we can more easily survive.

Individual conditions such as mental health issues, addictions and other chronic health problems need to be addressed and treated appropriately. It is surprising and distressing the sheer number of people who are aware they have a chronic health problem such as depression but do not seek help for a variety of reasons.

Attempting to cope on one’s own is not a good solution at any time, but when a stressful or traumatic event takes place, there may be nothing left in reserve psychologically or physically.

Societal problems such as poverty and homelessness are everyone’s responsibility. Even if you are not personally affected by these afflictions, the desperate measures that the poor and marginalized are sometimes driven to can affect us all – as we have seen in the anarchy taking place in New Orleans.

Although we don’t always acknowledge it, we are all citizens together in our communities, nation and world and often, taking measures to help deal with larger social problems will benefit us all in the long run.

 

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