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Arkansas tornadoes affect mental health of residents, students

Recovery for the mind by Remington Miller | April 10, 2023 at 2:14 p.m.
Volunteers help remove debris from the front yard of a home on Richwood Rd. in the hard hit Kingwood neighborhood Saturday, April 8, 2023 more than a week after a strong tornado caused extensive damage throughout Little Rock and North Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

After the dust has settled, debris has been removed, and power has been restored, many Arkansans may need to seek out another type of recovery following the deadly March 31 tornadoes.

Severe weather fatigue and other mental health issues can plague anyone after a natural disaster, regardless of whether they were directly or indirectly impacted by it, officials said.

“For example, a Little Rock resident whose home wasn’t in the tornado’s path may still suffer emotional distress because it came so close or because it damaged the homes of other people in their home community. People process disasters in a variety of ways and have different reactions, but it’s important for everyone – regardless of why they are experiencing emotional distress – to closely monitor their mental health and seek help if needed,” Gavin Lesnick, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said by email last week. 

He said it’s especially important to heed this advice “if your emotional distress does not improve in the days after” a disaster.  

Symptoms to watch for include crying spells, bursts of anger, difficulty eating, difficulty sleeping, a loss of interest in what would typically be of interest, headaches or stomach aches, fatigue, feelings of guilt or hopelessness, difficulty focusing on normal tasks, focusing too much on impending storms, and avoiding family and friends, Lesnick said. 

He also said children, in particular, may experience heightened anxiety, fear of being away from loved ones, and irritability, and they may refuse to take part in normal social activities.

In addition to seeking help from mental health professionals, officials suggested that those who are struggling focus on other forms of self care, including eating a healthy diet, deep breathing, exercising and meditating.


Counseling professionals in Central Arkansas are already working to help K-12 and college students with mental health issues post tornado. 

Aresh Assadi, the director of counseling services at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said last week he’d noticed people who weren’t directly impacted by the disaster having a dual reaction.  

“I’ve seen people that are very grateful to have not been hit or had their house damaged, but also some guilt,” he said. 

“The way the tornado moved was kind of random. One person’s house might be fine, but down the block [another house] was destroyed. That can mess with someone’s head. They might ask ‘why me?’,” Assadi said.

Lisa Williams, the mental health coordinator for the Little Rock School District, said many more students have been anxious since the tornado struck.

The school district has increased the presence of social workers and mental health providers on campuses in affected areas and on campuses that have requested them. The district is providing ongoing support because many students may not process the disaster immediately, she said last week. 

Williams said, “Although this is Arkansas, many have never been alive to see a tornado that causes this kind of devastation and destruction, so it is something they have not seen before. 

“Some children might have a concern for safety and show signs of anxiety or nervousness and maybe have feelings of helplessness,” she said. “Or some kids might act overly confident and as if they are not scared.” 

Williams said it is important for parents to be attentive to whatever kind of behavior their child is showing and take care of their physical needs by making sure they are eating, sleeping, hydrated and then “return kids to a routine as normal as possible.”

The mental health coordinator also said, while younger kids might communicate through playing with a parent or guardian, older children should be given a chance to tell adults how they feel so that their feelings are validated. 

On April 1, the Little Rock School DIstrict suggested in a tweet that allowing children to assist with recovery efforts could alleviate some feelings of helplessness.

Williams’ advice was to have younger children help their parents deliver food or water to those involved in the recovery efforts and to give older kids the opportunity to say how they’d like to help. 

“It gives kids control … to feel like they are helping and they can be productive again,” Williams said. 

“We’ve also talked with teachers about how students pick up cues from adults, so we’ve talked about encouraging faculty to keep calm and talked to students about being extra kind to friends or peers that might have been more affected by the tornado,” she said. 

The tweet from the school district also suggested parents reduce how much news coverage of the tornadoes that they children see, as “repeatedly watching broadcasts of the disaster can re-traumatize children and adults.”

Lesnick with the Department of Human Services said, “Giving your body and mind a break can boost your ability to cope, so it can be important to step away, especially if ongoing media coverage is causing you increased stress or anxiety.”

In addition, Williams noted that it is normal for students’ anxiety to carry over as future storms were predicted so soon after the Central Arkansas tornado. 

“Even if they weren’t personally hit, they’ve seen images or heard discussions about the damage. They might wonder if future storms will be that severe again or is their house next, and that could increase anxiety,” Williams said. 


Even forecasters struggle with this severe weather fatigue, said Dennis Cavanaugh, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock. “It usually happens when an area gets round after round of severe weather, like on Tuesday after the big tornado Friday,” he said last week. 

Cavanaugh said severe weather fatigue can generally create two reactions: anxiety and caution, or apathy. 

“It can increase anxiety and, I imagine for the people in Wynne as well as Little Rock, North Little Rock, Sherwood and Jacksonville, I bet the storms returning to the forecast did give them a great deal of anxiety,” he said. “Those in Pulaski or Faulkner County probably feel it was too close for comfort, after seeing damage done nearby, and still feel that anxiety.”

The meteorologist said it’s not unusual for people, after a tornado, to be overly cautious about something as relatively simple as a thunderstorm warning. 

“It doesn’t help that the last big event was probably the tornado that hit the Mayflower, Vionia area [in 2014], so some people may not have had experience seeing damage up close in a long while,” he said. 

“They might experience some kind of anxiety before a warning is even issued,” Cavanaugh said, “Overnight and early morning forecasts could create bad sleep or distractions at work, even if it is just a watch or an outlook and there is no action being suggested yet.”

Severe weather fatigue can also cause people to be closed off emotionally and to not pay attention to the forecast. 

“Especially if they are not seeing any damage near or around them or they’ve not experienced any severe weather after it was forecasted, they might start to feel like weather services are inaccurate or that forecasters are overhyping the weather,” he said.

The forecaster said that can put people in danger. 

“[Fatigue] can make some people lower their guard, and it makes them less likely to listen to warnings. So they might not take shelter or appropriate precautions. That means, when something big does hit, there could be more injuries or even fatalities,” he said. 

But the meteorologist said Wednesday that Arkansans could expect a break in the form of a calm forecast, for at least a week.

Cavanaugh also said focusing on what one can control might help in the battle against severe weather fatigue. 

“The weather is going to do what the weather is going to do, but focusing on having a plan, ways to get information, and a safe shelter to go to is good. Once you have that plan, it is good to try not to hyperfocus on the weather,” he said. 

He added, “With the possibility of additional severe storms, and this time of the year being ‘tornado season’ in Arkansas, everyone does need to have a way to receive warnings so they will know if they need to take shelter.

“And Arkansans should trust that people have their back," Cavanaugh said, noting that the weather service, broadcast and online media work hard to get information out. "They should trust that we have their back," he said.


Free counseling services for people of all ages are being offered in locations where the tornadoes caused damage, Lesnick said. 

The Community Mental Health Centers, which serve the federally-declared disaster areas, is one such provider. The listed crisis number for The Centers at 1521 Merrill Drive in Little Rock is (501) 666-8686. 

Mid-South Health Systems at 661 Addison Drive in Wynne provided services even when their power was out for several days after the tornado, Lesnick said. They serve Cross County and their listed crisis number  1-(800)-382-3117. The listed phone number for the system is (870) 238-1135.

Staff of the Centers for Youth and Families in Pulaski County have also been canvassing neighborhoods in an effort to reach people, Lesnick said. 

The department lists more mental health services and tips here.


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