Natural disasters linked to increased mental health problems

Repeated exposure to hurricanes leads to adverse psychological symptoms, raising concerns about links between climate events and mental health. 

A first-of-its kind study led by the University of California, Irvine, has identified a link between natural disasters and increasing mental health problems.

Research focused on indirect, direct and media-based exposure to hurricanes, and the team believe their work is vital in understanding the relationship between climate catastrophes and the public’s psychological wellbeing. This is a key area of research at a point in time when the environmental crisis is leading to an increase in the prevalence and ferocity of such events. 

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‘We show that people are not likely to habituate, or get used to, climate-related natural disasters that will increase in frequency and severity in the years to come. Our results suggest a potential mental health crisis associated with those who themselves directly experienced the storm or knew someone who did, as well as those who spent several hours engaged with media about the hurricane,’ said Dana Rose Garfin of the University of California, Irvine, and first author of the report.

The work initially involved assessing Florida residents in the hours before Hurricane Irma made landfall in September 2017. The same individuals were then examined after the event, and again when Hurricane Michael touched down in the area 13 months later. Both storms were category five, although only the latter ranked at that level when it hit the contiguous United States. 

Following analysis of the interviews, symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety were identified, along with general ongoing fear and worry. Social and work-related impairment had increased as a result, which often included problems interacting and communicating with other people, difficulties performing and completing employment tasks and other daily activities.

‘Some distress is normal following traumatic and extremely stressful events,’ Garfin said. ‘Most people will recover and display resilience over time. However, as climate-related catastrophic hurricanes and other natural disasters such as wildfires and heat waves escalate, this natural healing process may be disrupted by repeated threat exposure.

‘Moreover, we followed people longitudinally over two hurricane seasons, and our data show that as people experience multiple occurrences over time, psychological symptoms accumulate and intensify, potentially portending a mental health crisis,’ she added.

Recent studies have shown there has been a marked increase in hurricane activity since modern records began in 1850, with storms staying stronger for longer and therefore capable of causing far more damage to the environment, property, and people. 


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