Hurricanes linked to long-term mental stress

Survivors of the1992 hurricane Andrew were not only impacted by the immediate consequences of the storm. New study findings show that the storm indirectly affected their mental well-being up to seven years afterwards.

The findings imply that the survivors of last year’s hurricane Katrina, which had a greater economic and societal impact than hurricane Andrew, may need to be assessed and treated for mental health problems both now and in the future.

“If they are not treated for psychological stress, they might experience psychological problems for many years to come,” study investigator David Russell, a doctoral student at Florida State University, told Reuters Health.

Exposure to natural disasters can increase a person’s risk for later mental health problems, as various reports have shown. One such natural disaster, Hurricane Andrew, resulted in 25 deaths in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and left more than 250,000 people homeless, in addition to the 82,000 businesses that were destroyed or damaged and the estimated $35 billion in economic losses.

Studies have documented the short-term consequences of the category five storm on the victims’ mental health, often using information from interviews conducted within two years of the hurricane, yet few researchers have examined the storm’s long-term mental health effects.

To that end, Russell and his colleagues analyzed data collected from residents of Miami-Dade county who were adolescents at the time of the storm. The first set of data were collected from students in all 73 of the county’s public middle and high schools, as well as alternative schools, before the hurricane, as part of another study, and the second and third sets were collected afterwards.

Their findings were presented during the recent meeting of the Southern Sociological Society.

Girls, those who initially reported experiencing more depression before the hurricane, and those exposed to high levels of stressful events before the hurricane, appeared to be more adversely affected by Hurricane Andrew-related stressors than did their counterparts, the report indicates.

Yet, stressful events associated with the hurricane, such as being away from home - as was reported by 17 percent of study participants - were not directly associated with depressive symptoms five to seven years after the hurricane. Instead, such events increased the adolescents’ risk of experiencing other stressful events after the hurricane, such as failing a grade in school or being involved in an accident. And, the report indicates, it was these latter stressors that were related to an increased risk of depressive symptoms five to seven years after the hurricane.

Thus, there was a “long-term link” between hurricane Andrew-related stress and depressive symptoms experienced years afterwards, Russell said, and the “mechanism driving this process was the distress experienced as a result of the storm.”

There were a “set of adversities that worked in between that were really the driving force of the increased risk of mental health problems,” Russell explained. He described those adversities as a “spark plug for igniting a number of other problems.”

In light of their research, Russell and his colleagues “thought it might be relevant to generalize our findings to victims of hurricane Katrina,” which, though similar in strength to hurricane Andrew, had far greater consequences in terms of its “human and social impact,” he told Reuters Health.

Many New Orleans residents were stranded in the days following hurricane Katrina, which resulted in feelings of hopelessness and isolation, and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes. What’s more, the death rate was 50 times greater than that of Hurricane Andrew and its total economic cost is expected to exceed 200 billion dollars, according to analysts’ predictions.

These observations, in conjunction with the current study’s findings, “suggest that persons exposed to hurricane Katrina will be at elevated risk for mental health problems for years to come,” Russell and his team conclude.

Provided by ArmMed Media
Revision date: June 21, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD