As a volunteer with the mental health advocacy group Vibrant Emotional Health, Andrew McLean, M.D., M.P.H., chair of the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Science, finds himself in his share of challenging environments. Whether he’s providing logistical support for local mental health agencies in the wake of a flood in North Dakota or offering direct services in Wisconsin to asylum seekers impacted by war, he’s never far from the front lines in the mental health fight. North Dakota Medicine caught up with McLean to learn more about his outreach work across the country.
Thanks for your time, Dr. McLean. You recently returned from Kentucky after assisting with the mental health needs of persons impacted by some natural disasters there, and you were working with Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban too, yes? Two very different types of trauma, I imagine.
I’ve been involved in disaster mental health for some time. I started out with the floods in the Upper-Midwest years ago, when I was when working for the state as Medical Director for the Department of Human Services. I’ve done some research work on the impacts of COVID-19 with leaders from Vibrant Emotional Health (VEH), and later agreed to volunteer with VEH on the Afghan guests who came over after the “fall of Afghanistan” in 2021. This summer, they asked if I would consider deploying to Kentucky. VEH had been contacted by a foundation in eastern Kentucky that was struggling to assess the mental health needs of the individuals down there who had been impacted by significant flooding. And western Kentucky had experienced a tornado that was a pretty massive problem about eight or nine months ago. Well, they noticed that there was a difference in engagement between eastern Kentucky — people affected by the floods — and those affected by the tornado in western Kentucky, and they were just trying to get a handle on what the needs might be. My dad was from Kentucky, and I felt a bit of an obligation to go down there.
In terms of the natural disasters, then, would you say the mental health needs differ from one disaster to another — floods are different than tornados are different than earthquakes?
There are a number of variables that can make a difference. Some communities might actually identify themselves as a certain disaster region — “We’re a flood community” or “We’re tornado alley” — and might have actually gained some mastery in preparedness or response to one particular type of natural disaster. Others may be less prepared, and thus more impacted. Resources are a significant factor in how individuals or groups might rebound. I don’t want to make assumptions, but my impression is that eastern Kentucky has historically been a poorer area. It’s a different culture. They’ve had to deal with the extraction industry — coal and mining — and they have a long distrust of government. They have the rural “hollers” and so you don’t have any easy-to-access group of people or large community where you can just say, “Let’s meet at such and such location at this time and we’ll all get together.” It’s very scattered. Historically, they’ve had to deal with lack of resources and perceived lack of attention from government, so we really followed the lead of the people who were down there, who knew the culture. In Appalachia, a common custom in talking about issues is the “story circle.” Local leaders would identify a topic and group members would share. We – volunteers, local leaders, and those impacted – utilized this practice. One issue that came up reminded me of a similar concern we heard about with Hurricane Katrina. Many of the damaged homes had been handed down through generations, but there was no legal written title to be located so people couldn’t access FEMA funds. Unless you could prove you owned the property, you couldn’t get relief funds.
To that point, you mentioned working with Afghans. Do we have any evidence indicating how the mental health needs are different for victims of a natural disaster versus other sorts of traumas, like war or emotional abuse?
Well, research has shown that natural disasters are generally better “tolerated” than manmade disasters. People who’ve been impacted significantly and had significant losses regardless — they’re going to be at greater risk for depression, anxiety, and so on. But to clarify, in a lot of the so-called natural disasters, there’s often an element of man-made problems that play a role. Again, with Hurricane Katrina, decisions on infrastructure pre-storm had an impact. Political and man-made decisions made that event worse. In the Minot, N.D., flood [in 2011] there was a similar element. The Souris River comes down from Canada into Minot and flows back up into Canada. Well, the Canadian officials had to release water from reservoirs up in Canada that summer to reduce flooding, but downstream, Minot suffered in part because of that — at least that was the perception. So, with a lot of these “natural” disasters, there’s often a man-made element, which also has an impact on mental health.
This discussion reminds me a bit of that Naomi Klein book The Shock Doctrine, which is about how modern economic structures both produce more frequent disasters, via climate change for example, and then “capitalize” on the disaster. Klein calls this “disaster capitalism,” and it’s very hard on our mental health.
I’ve read about disaster capitalism, but haven’t read Klein’s book. Actually, there are alliances now within the mental health field. There’s the Climate Psychiatry Alliance and a group within the American Psychological Association specifically looking at these real and existential issues, including climate change, and all of those stresses that go along with potentially being climate immigrants or the changes in life or location that come about because of climate change. A lot of this is intertwined. When you were talking about the physical versus mental trauma, a lot of times in disasters, especially early on, we really just want to do the best we can in directing people to where the resources are — just for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: sleep, shelter, and safety. Certainly, there are people who are predisposed to more mental health concerns based on their history. Part of a response would be helping people adapt to this “unnatural” situation, given the natural response that people would have to stress like this. The other thing is identifying people who may be at higher risk or already have significant mental health problems — getting them appropriate referral and treatment to reduce their burden. For many people, these mental health concerns are a little farther down the road. They’ve been dealing with the basics first, and they need time to just breathe and reevaluate.
And that was similar to or different from the Afghan population you were working with in Wisconsin after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan?
What I did there was part of Operation Allies Welcome. There hadn’t been much precedent for getting that many people out of a situation like that and into the U.S. I can’t remember the last time that actually happened at that degree—
—Yeah, I think that probably is one of the better examples. So, when they came here, most of the Afghans did not actually have refugee status. Their legal status was different. And they arrived on military bases or military camps that were set up as best they could to bring those people in. They came in different stages, more or less, where I think they were placed on the East Coast, which filled up first, and then they opened more bases in the Midwest. So, I happened to be “deployed” to Wisconsin. Part of my job, even though it was to work with these guests, was also doing a lot of work with healthcare providers, including primary care, and helping them sort out how to treat mental health issues, what medications/treatments are beneficial, and how to maintain wellness for themselves when working with traumatized people.
What kinds of people were you seeing in the camp?
There were a lot of single Afghans there, and there were families. If somebody was at high medical risk, or if they were pregnant, they were more likely to be released with benefits sooner. A lot of the last people to be released were single males — and they just wanted to work. You know that the economy was just devastated back in Afghanistan after the Taliban took over. They just wanted to work and send money back to their families, who were hiding somewhere, and it was really heart-wrenching to see these oftentimes young individuals just sitting around when they really want to get out and work.
That’s often not the perception many Americans have of such refugees is it?
One of the most touching things with the Afghans I saw was when we were doing some outreach in the camp, and we went over to a group of individuals who had been in their [Afghan] military. One of the volunteers who was from another organization was with me and she had served in the U.S. military, in Afghanistan. It was just so touching, as she was trying to communicate in English and then Pashto, and, essentially, when she informed this gentleman that she was a soldier working and fighting the same battle he was. He was just so grateful — he was beside himself that he was meeting someone who understood.
That understanding and sympathy probably goes a long way in mental health.
That’s one of the takeaways for me. The other takeaway is that, in Kentucky, it was just so heartening to see all of the work that they’re doing, despite all of the barriers — to see just the collective wisdom down there and the understanding of what they are up against. To see that they were doing the best they could, and they had a plan, as opposed to thinking everybody down there is just waiting for help.
Interview conducted and edited for space by Brian James Schill