After the storm

In the months after Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida in August of 1992, researchers assessing the emotional well-being of survivors made some concerning observations:

When 400 people living in Dade County were interviewed six months after the hurricane, 25 percent reported distress that was severe enough to meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. The researchers found clinically significant cases of depression and anxiety among some of the survivors. Many others experienced general distress, health problems and chronic struggles in their daily life.

Most significantly, a small percentage of people continued to show signs of distress and impairment nearly three years later.

As news footage has been unfolding this year of earthquake and tsunami devastation in Japan, towns laid waste by tornados in the United States, wildfires burning in the Southwest and floodwaters swelling rivers and creeks, it’s worth remembering some of the lessons learned from previous natural disasters: that they carry an emotional impact often lasting long after the disaster response teams and outreach services have packed up and moved on to the next crisis.

There’s a large body of research on how people fare psychologically and socially after a natural disaster. Often the emotional toll is far greater than the financial impact of losing a home, business or possessions.

PTSD appears to be the most common issue, followed by depression and anxiety. When studies have followed survivors over a long period of time, most of these people eventually recovered or at least had some improvement in their symptoms. But researchers have consistently found a minority of individuals who are not able to get better on their own.

Disaster survivors who experience long-lasting difficulty seem to have some factors in common. They’re more likely to be dealing with other life stresses, such as financial problems. They also tend to have lower self-esteem and weak social ties.

Various studies have found that children, older adults and individuals from diverse cultures can be especially vulnerable to distress and psychological problems after a disaster. This isn’t absolute, however, and often can be mitigated with the right kind of support.

The National Center for PTSD notes that individual beliefs seem to matter when people are dealing with the emotional impact of natural disaster: “Adults at risk for mental health problems think that they (a) are uncared for by others, (b) have little control over what happens to them, or (c) lack the capacity to manage stress.”

In a very real sense, the volunteers who show up to clear away tornado debris or mop up floodwaters are demonstrating social support that can help survivors move forward.

Not all types of social support are helpful, though. Studies of assault victims and motor vehicle crash survivors have “consistently shown that the presence of negative social support impedes recovery,” the National Center for PTSD explains. “Family members’ critical comments about the length of time taken for recovery seem to stand in the way of trauma victims’ recovery for treatment of PTSD.”

Some of this is obvious. Everyone who experiences or witnesses a natural disaster is affected in some way, and grief, shock and distress are painful but normal reactions. Extra effort may be needed, though, to identify and help survivors who are more likely to have trouble recovering. Nor does the recovery period end when the news cycle moves on to the next big thing. The aftermath can be lengthy and takes time, patience and understanding.

Additional resources:

Minnesota Department of Health

Federal Emergency Management Agency

National Resource Center on Advancing Emergency Preparedness for Culturally Diverse Communities

Photo: After the Joplin, Mo. tornado – Associated Press

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