Editorial: Battling demons

NO FEAR. Civil society, civic organizations, academics, religious communities and other stakeholders must work with local governtments in Mindanao to provide psychotherapy and other interventions addressing the mental health needs of earthquake survivors, especially children, adolescents and the elderly. (File Foto)

SIGHTINGS of “wakwak,” a winged creature from myth, attacking earthquake survivors in Magsaysay, Davao del Sur may be more than a news of oddity.

As reported by SunStar Davao’s Orlando B. Dinoy on Nov. 14, a 19-year-old sleeping in the outdoors woke with scratches on his arms. Another survivor spotted a “huge, black bird with red eyes” flying over the area.

The “wakwak” stories trended on social media, discouraging many survivors from sleeping outdoors. On Oct. 16, an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 hit many parts of Mindanao, causing deaths and injuries. This was followed by another earthquake of magnitude 6.6 hitting Cotabato.

Jasper, a friar organizing donations for Mindanao quake survivors, said that the aftershocks following the earthquakes happened several times within a day and seemed even stronger than the tremors. Villagers told him that sleeping in the open, preferably in hammocks, seemingly lessened anxiety from anticipating the next quake or experiencing shock from the sudden tremors.

The “wakwak” stories exacerbates the trauma suffered after the October upheavals, which left many homeless and needy.

At the same time, the “wakwak” stories are also red flags signaling to the authorities and civil society for urgent interventions in mental health during post-disaster crisis.

“Violent earthquakes can cause tremendous trauma in survivors,” resulting in depression among adolescent survivors of the Wenchuan, China earthquake in 2008, wrote Qirui Tian, Han Han, Dexiang Zhang, Yuanguang Ma, Jing Zhao and Shouxin Li in a paper published in the Dec. 10, 2018 issue of the journal, “Frontiers in Psychology.”

The researchers cited related studies showing that, since earthquakes lead to the death of family members and sometimes loss of entire families, earthquakes result in emotional disturbances, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was “lasting and persistent.” Some survivors did not show any improvement in their PTSD symptoms three years after experiencing severe earthquake trauma.

The same study showed that survivors avoided recalling events related to the earthquake to relieve their stress. “Over time, the tendency to avoid recalling the trauma-related memories generalized to other types of memory and resulting in an overgeneralized memory retrieval style for autobiographical memories,” wrote the researchers.

Overgeneral autobiographical memory (OGM) is a “risk factor” triggered by earthquake trauma that makes a person more vulnerable to depression. The researchers recommended that quake survivors receive treatment directed at aiding their autobiographical memory to reduce the OGM and their vulnerability to depression.

Focusing on survival and the return to “normalcy” is dictated by the personal and social realities of survivors. Mental health professionals, civic organizations, religious orders and other communities must mobilize programs to reach out to survivors and provide the expertise needed for the life-altering consequences of PTSD.

In a paper posted on, Angelo Gemignani and Francesca Mastorci of the Institute of Clinical Physiology of the National Research Council explained that earthquake survivors endure emotional disorders that are typical of “chronic exposure to stress such as alteration of hormone levels, sleep disorders and, in the long term, cardiovascular changes associated with an increased risk for hypertension, tachycardia and sometimes myocardial infarction.”

Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable among the survivors. Immediate on-site cognitive-behavioral therapy must be initiated so that the survivors come to terms with their experiences and do not “re-live” the stress. The researchers urge a network involving parents and teachers to be created since children need continuing psychotherapy years after the earthquake to ensure that the children’s physical and cognitive development is not delayed.


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