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How to Prepare for Mental Health Challenges in Emergencies

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Embracing the prepper mindset attracts individuals and families from diverse backgrounds, each motivated by various reasons. Within this vast community of preppers, a significant number faces unique challenges, particularly in the realm of mental health. Whether confronting their own struggles or supporting a loved one, many preppers navigate the complexities of mental health issues. How do you go about preparing effectively when caring for those with mental health challenges?

woman in fetal position with head in arms in distress

Types of Mental Health Issues

At a very basic level, there are two kinds of mental health issues: genetic and environmental. Depression, social anxiety, PTSD, and others often have their roots in life experiences (environmental), as well as possible genetic predisposition.

Others, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are more purely genetic, and then there are issues such as autism, which may have roots in both. In these cases, medication is almost always part of the treatment and handling change is often a huge challenge.

Challenges for Caregivers

It can often be challenging to keep safe in everyday life those with mental health issues. Sometimes, their condition means they cannot recognize the danger of their actions. For example, they may not understand that running out in front of a moving car or jumping out of a second floor window is dangerous, or stop themselves even if they do know.

In a survival life or death situation,  you as their caregiver may be forced to make choices that you would never, ever make in the normal ups and downs of life.

You must be prepared to make difficult decisions, to accept the least-bad option, to keep everyone alive and safe.

Least bad option examples

You must be prepared to make difficult decisions, to accept the least-bad option, to keep everyone alive and safe. Here are some examples of what that could look like:

  • Use a child-leash  or a wrist-leash to ensure your loved one doesn’t run away, straight into a big puddle with a live electric wire in it, or worse.
  • Give them medication you usually avoid due to unpleasant side-effects.
  • Lie or trick them.
  • Administer a sedative if they really won’t leave a danger area or are endangering themselves or others. Moving an unhappy toddler is hard enough – forcing a full-grown man who is determined to stay is a whole ‘nother level of impossible! While it doesn’t work for everyone, Benadryl makes many people sleepy and could be very helpful at the right time, including mid-way through an evacuation. If you anticipate this type of situation, you should work out a strategy in advance with their doctor(s).

Think hard about your loved one and what you may need to do if your choices narrow down to forcing them to go / not go somewhere, or possibly having them or someone else die. In a wide-scale emergency, there won’t be enough trained, experienced professionals to be everywhere they are needed. You need to be prepared to handle your loved one without professional assistance. Preparing in advance will make this easier.

Do this FIRST: Medical Info Card

Emergencies happen without advance notice. The number one thing you can do to help your loved one is to make a small card telling emergency care givers about their specific needs. (Bonus points if you laminate it. Fed Ex’s with print services often offer a self-service laminator.)

Remember that in a wide-scale disaster, the first responders you see may not be trained professionals. They could well be local CERT volunteers. CERT trains people in handling emergencies within the community but even trained, experienced professionals have difficulty handling mental illness. A card providing simple, clear instructions is immensely helpful to any caregiver who may assist your loved one.

For example, if first responders are warned that a person is autistic and flashing lights may set off a reaction, that may give them a small window to guide the person away before more emergency vehicles arrive. If there is specific music, pictures, a game – anything – that helps them calm down, list it. If it’s something they normally have with them (on their phone or tablet, for instance), include that.

The number one thing you can do to help your loved one is to make a small card telling emergency care givers about their specific needs.

Where to keep the medical info card

They should keep this in their wallet or clipped onto their backpack or purse. In short, in or on something they have with them all the time. Adding an app with all their key information to their tablet or phone is another good step. This information will help anyone helping them. Make sure it’s easy to find and check it every six months or so to ensure the information is correct and up to date, and that the card hasn’t been misplaced or lost.

Add important info on and to phones

After my mother in law’s memory failures became critical, we added a sticker on the back of her cell phone with our contact information in case she got lost and couldn’t find her way home. My phone has an app with everyone’s basic medical information in case I am incapacitated or forced to evacuate in an emergency. These kind of simple steps can make life much easier in an emergency.

Reduce Fear Through Practice

When change is the enemy, familiarity is a friend. Practicing is one of the best ways to make change easier in stressful situations. Practice makes things more familiar. Here are some key things to focus on:

Designated meeting space

Identify a designated meeting space for emergencies and in case you become separate in daily life and, and assign tasks for each person in an emergency (more on the latter in a moment.) There is no way to prepare and practice for everything, but these two easy steps are appropriate for a lot of different, potential disasters.

Stop by your designated meeting space on regular days, or having your loved one go there and meet you (so they are comfortable going there alone). This makes that task more familiar, more comfortable, and less fearful. The more you do it, the more comfortable, less fearful, and easier to remember it becomes. If a hurricane, tornado, or fire destroys your home, walking to the meeting spot may be a familiar activity that your loved one does just because they want to be in a place that is comfortable and familiar, IF you have practiced it regularly. If not, then you may find them walking around the house, stuck and unable to move on.

Practice evacuation plan

Practice your evacuation plan. Assign each person tasks to complete and make certain each person understands their tasks. That may be taking their own bag and emergency supplies to the car and staying there, or it could be something more complex like a list of chores to finish. If they have chores that are part of their normal life, they can still do them in an emergency. If feeding the cat / dog and cleaning up after their poop is part of their tasks, they can be responsible for putting their food and doggy poop bags in the car. If they help carry the bags to the car when you go on vacation, they can help carry them out in an emergency because it is still the same task.

On the other hand, asking them to do something completely new amidst a chaotic and/or dangerous time is asking for confusion and delay, at a minimum. It could easily lead to a total meltdown. If you know a disaster will require them to do something outside of normal life, practice, practice, practice. You may need them to help cover windows with plywood. You can practice standing and holding the wood in place. Even if it feels silly on a day without a cloud in the sky, it could make a world of difference in an emergency.

If you know a disaster will require them to do something outside of normal life, practice, practice, practice.

Calling for help / administering aid

Practice making 911 calls, going to a trusted neighbor’s house for help, and even knowing some basic first aid skills. In many cases, aging parents are caring for adult children with special needs, and those children should know what to do if suddenly mom or dad isn’t waking up or is injured.

Whatever the novel task is, if it’s important in an emergency, find a way to practice at least part of it in advance. Even getting used to the feeling of work gloves and the weight / texture of the wood may make a huge difference. Baby steps in advance can make a huge difference later.

Emergency Room Visits

In addition to the emergencies everyone else has to be prepared for, those with mentally ill family members may need to be prepared for unexpected emergency room stays. Being seen in the emergency room can take a while for any person, but for those who need a psych bed (or – rarer still – a pediatric pysch bed), those waits can be interminable.

Prepare an ER go-bag

Keep a small bag in your trunk with supplies for your loved one and yourself. A basic kit might include:

  • pajamas
  • toothbrush / toothpaste / dental floss
  • a small pillow (or at the very least, pillow case)
  • comfort items
  • a throw blanket for each person
  • slippers or slipper-socks and an eyeshade for sleeping (nice little extras)
  • a spare charger or at least a cord (If you rely on electronic gadgets this could be a lifesaver.)
  • entertainment for each person
  • a copy of medical records, preferably on a thumb drive for easy access and less bulk

Making Everyday Life Less Stressful

A few more tips that can make going about daily life a little less stressful.

  • Benadryl, especially the rapidly-absorbed liquid kind, can be a life-saver, but it can also go bad quickly if left in a hot vehicle. Carry some with you, but be sure to rotate it, and any food or medicine you keep in the car regularly.
  • A small tub with play dough and a weighted blanket may also help when you run into the kind of irritations that barely register for a neurotypical family, such as stopped traffic or a flat tire.
  • Keep with you a small pill box with one dose of every pill they take, just in case you leave the house without taking them or can’t get back in time for the next dose. (Neurotypical or neuro-atypical, we’re all human and make mistakes.)
  • As mentioned earlier, set meet-up places near your home and anywhere else you spend a lot of time. If something happens and they have to run for their lives or simply get lost, this makes finding one another again faster and easier. Bonus points if you make a point of going to that spot on a regular basis.

Important: Remain Calm!

Once something happens, or is clearly imminent, the media coverage starts, and most media coverage could stress out Ghandi himself. Let’s not even think about how the sensationalistic media coverage could impact someone for whom even minor changes are stressful! Do your whole family a favor and turn off the TV and radio. If you need an update, listen using headphones or check online, then close your browser windows.

Keeping calm is important. Use the 16-second survival breath to help yourself remain as normal as possible. Talk about ‘the plan’ if something happens during normal life so that when you need to talk about it during an actual disaster, it is still “normal.” This lessens the possibility of the conversation becoming a major stressor in and of itself. Don’t push stress levels higher by inviting the crisis-hungry media into your home.

To reiterate, keeping an even temper and demeanor are important. If you are calm, it is easier for your loved one to stay calm.

Final Thoughts

Repetition is good for the soul, so here goes.

Talk about possible emergencies in advance. Practice. Keep basic supplies in your car, and rotate food and medicine regularly before they go bad from the heat. Remain calm.

Truthfully, these are the same steps everyone else takes, but with someone who is not neurotypical, you need to be more disciplined and repeat them a whole lot more. So much more that they become ingrained, normal even. You need to prepare for your loved one as well as yourself since you can’t expect as much help from them in a crisis.

But, as in so much of life, the basics really are the same as they are for everyone else. Be prepared – for yourself and for them. Practice, and have them practice. And make sure there is clear, easy-to-find information to help others help your loved one if you are separated from them.

How do you prep to help your loved one with mental health challenges?

More Info About Prepping for Those with Special Needs

Originally published February 15, 2016

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