Friday 9 December 2016

Weather warning: consider those affected by storms

Patricia Casey

Published 12/01/2016 | 02:30

This aerial shot shows the scale of flooding and damage in the Athlone area following Storm Desmond and last week's downpours. Photo: Peter Barrow
This aerial shot shows the scale of flooding and damage in the Athlone area following Storm Desmond and last week's downpours. Photo: Peter Barrow

Just like everybody else I was looking forward to the Christmas break and to almost two weeks of freedom from work. That was until the rain, starting one month ago, became torrential.

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The upshot of continuous downpours is that roads, fields and houses are flooded. For a large number of people their homes and belongings are destroyed and they may face serious financial burdens.

I visited my beloved childhood home in east Cork in the post-Christmas period and spoke with neighbours, relatives and friends there. The word "depression" kept cropping up.

Many said they felt "gloomy" and I confess, I did too.

There was no let-up to the wind, the heavy patter on the roofs and flooded roads made travel unpredictable. The black, cloud-covered sky made the already short days seem even shorter and darker.

We agreed that we all had lots of food in our freezers, wine too, and we were not cold. I spoke to one friend who said he felt a weight on him and that nothing could lift it. He was looking forward to brighter days ahead.

My friends and I felt an indescribable burden and heaviness upon us. But we all knew better days were ahead and that cheered us up. Another commented "this can't last much longer", but others were less sanguine remarking "who knows what might happen".

Some were frustrated at not being able to walk or cycle and others experienced the tension of being "cooped up" and confined indoors. Yet none of us had anything resembling what is called "clinical depression" but we were burdened and heavy-hearted.

For me these conversations and my personal experience over the past few weeks have provided a very helpful insight into what depression, the illness, might be like and how it can arise from environmental factors.

Those living in the Northern parts of Scandinavia have experiences such as these annually with the polar night, when the sun never rises above the horizon, lasts almost two months of the year and the biting winds and heavy snowfalls require clothing so heavy that mobility is impeded.

Seasonal affective disorder is common in these countries and is found in almost 10pc of their population during winter.

The weather-related factors - rain, darkness, cloud and immobility on their own - might not influence mood significantly but in combination can have a devastating impact and they have most definitely been cumulative in recent weeks in this country.

Add to that the financial impact following loss of property and livestock as well as feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness, and the risk of depression becomes all too evident.

The relevant factors causing this mood state are by now probably obvious to everybody. The continuous patter of rain is deadening. Two or three days can be managed and may even be homely and comforting but 15 days of a torrent dampens the spirit.

Then there is the darkness. We are currently experiencing the darkest days of the year but the forbidding clouds reduce the daylight hours even more.

It is widely accepted that melatonin, which affects our body clock and our sleep pattern, is influenced by light and darkness. Darkness also influences the hypothalamus, part of the brain controlling mood and the production of serotonin. Outdoor activities are also impeded and this impairs the release of endorphins, the feel-good hormone produced after, say, a brisk walk.

Most distressing is that the Christmas spirit has been rapidly erased, as we discover that precious belongings may have been lost forever. Furniture may be replaced but sentimental items are unique. Home should be a safe haven but the recent storms have destroyed our sense of its sanctity.

Our emotional and physical security has been violated and I became acutely conscious of that in my east Cork home, 100 metres above sea level, while devastating flooding was just a few kilometres away.

All of this is a personal disaster for many. Psychologically, most will survive because they are resilient and will emerge distressed but not ill from the recent emotional tsunami of Storms Frank and Eva.

I also know that some vulnerable people won't. These will be the minority, but they deserve the sympathies of all of us and the special consideration of the leaders of our country. Hope springs eternal.

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