People Who Experience Major Disasters More Likely to Have Long-Term Mental Health Issues – Everyday Health

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Study examines mental toll of disasters such as floods, tornados, and chemical spills, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Research suggests that the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” can be far from the truth when it comes to the mental wellness of individuals who have survived disastrous events.
According to a study published in the journal Natural Hazards, people who had repeated exposure to major disasters had lower mental health scores compared with expected national levels.
These findings on major disasters and mental health confirm what has been seen in previous studies, says lead author Garett Sansom, DrPH, research assistant professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
“We found that as people experienced more hazards, especially over the course of 5 or 10 years, their mental health tends to decrease over time. That’s not abnormal. It’s a normal reaction, and seeking help for that can be courageous,” says Dr. Sansom.
From 2000 to 2020, the state of Texas experienced 33 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared major disasters. Researchers focused on individuals from the Houston area, a city that has been hit with hurricanes, winter weather, drought, and flooding, as well as human-caused disastrous events such as explosions and chemical releases at nearby industrial facilities.
Investigators used a 12-item short form health survey to gather information on impacts from exposure to evaluate changes over time, producing a composite score for both mental (MCS) and physical (PCS) health. The questionnaire included items about energy level, mood, and desire to interact with others.
The majority of the 1,094 participants reported experiencing many hazardous events over the past five years. Nearly all the participants (96 percent) experienced hurricanes, flooding and industrial fires, 87 percent experienced chemical spills, and 80 percent lived through a tornado.
Investigators found that when individuals went through two or more events over the past five years, their MCS averages fell below the expected national levels. Additionally, they found that the more experience the individuals had with hazardous events, the lower their mental health was.
The takeaway here is that it’s common and normal to have mental health struggles after a hazardous event, says Sansom. “A lot of people choose to not seek out mental health care, typically due to stigma associated with that. Although that stigma has declined in recent years, it’s still exists,” he says.
People need to know that if they need help, seeking out mental health care is normal and can benefit them and their families, says Sansom.
Sansom also believes these findings should be used by public health officials. “Mental health is often overlooked in responding to and preparing for hazard exposures. Organizations and communities need to work to provide mental health help and support after these kinds of events,” says Sansom.
There’s a lot of research about what happens to people when a natural disaster is coming, says Steven Scoggin, PsyD, assistant professor and psychiatrist at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
“In the days or hours before a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood, people can actually be on a ‘high.’ The adrenaline gets pumping as people mobilize their energy and efforts,” says Dr. Scoggin.
“Then the disaster occurs, and the rebuilding phase begins, he says. About six months to a year after the disaster we see higher rates of depression and anxiety,” he says.
The pandemic is unlike a natural disaster, in part because there’s been no clear beginning and no clear ending, says Scoggin. “There was no ‘pre-warning,’ for us to prepare, and there’s been no clear hit. It continues to come and go, come and go, come and go, which has exacerbated the mental health effects,” says Scoggin.
“We’re seeing people’s cortisol, which is a stress hormone, stays up for a prolonged period of time, which we know wears on you physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually over time,” he says.
“The grit approach and trying to be strong all the time isn’t necessarily the best approach at a time like this,” says Scoggin. “Trauma has its own effects on the brain, and we need to pay attention to those effects rather than just trying to push through,” he says.
The healthier approach would be to name what’s going on with you and be aware about what’s happening in your body and mind, says Scoggin. “Talk with loved ones or even seek out a mental health professional if you need to,” he says.
Sansom echoes his concern for people’s mental health during the pandemic. “We collected the data for this study immediately prior to the pandemic. We are concerned that the already significant mental health issues we found will be exacerbated as a result of COVID-19,” he says.
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