January 19th, 2010
03:20 PM ET

In Haiti, mental aftershocks could be far-reaching

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/HEALTH/01/15/haiti.mental.psychological.effects/t1larg.health.disasters.gi.jpg caption="An injured woman sits with her baby at a makeshit field hospital Wednesday in Port-au-Prince, Haiti."]

Elizabeth Landau

As Haitians struggle to recover from the devastation of Tuesday's 7.0-magnitude earthquake, mental health experts caution that the most severe psychological effects won't take form until individuals' situations stabilize.

Feelings of confusion, fear, agitation, grief and anger that surround a large-scale traumatic event such as the Haiti earthquake give way to more pronounced psychological disorders once people's basic human needs are taken care of, experts say.

"Once the initial resources are in, when actually most people are going to start feel out of danger, is when the psychological aftereffects are going to hit people," said Dr. Daniella David, professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. "People need to ask for help when that happens."

In the immediate short-term period after a large-scale traumatic event, people are concerned primarily with self-preservation and taking care of family and friends, said Dr. Sandro Galea, chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. These people experience acute stress and anxiety, which is taken up by trying to fulfill the immediate physical needs.

There is a normal and immediate stress response that comes with an event that causes damage to homes and infrastructure and loss of family members, David said.

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