Natural disasters can take a real toll on mental health

Roy Miller sits with his belongings as residents evacuate ahead of Hurricane Laura at the Island Community Center on August 25, 2020 in Galveston, Texas. (Credit: Callaghan O'Hare/Getty Images)

Repeated exposure to major disasters does not make people mentally stronger, a recent study finds.

In fact, individuals who have been repeatedly exposed to major disasters show a reduction in mental health scores, the researchers report.

Additionally, the researchers found that the more experience people had with such events, the lower their mental health.

“We discovered the reverse of the adage ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger,'” says lead author Garett Sansom, research assistant professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University.

For the study in the journal Natural Hazards, Sansom and colleagues studied people from the Houston area, which is susceptible to hurricanes and flooding as well as industrial emergencies.

From 2000 to 2020, Texas—one of the states most prone to natural disasters—experienced 33 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared major disasters. Many of these—hurricanes, winter weather, drought, and flooding affected the Houston area. Emergencies such as explosions and chemical releases at nearby industrial facilities have also affected the area.

According to the research team, the combination of natural disasters and emergencies from industrial facilities presents a unique opportunity to observe the effects.

“There is an unfortunate truth that many communities that reside along the Gulf Coast are at the nexus of exposures from natural and anthropogenic, or human-caused, hazards,” Sansom says.

Researchers used a 12-item short form health survey to gather information. The survey assessed cumulative impacts from exposure to evaluate changes over time, producing a composite score for both mental (MCS) and physical (PCS) health.

The majority of the respondents reported that they experienced many hazardous events over the past five years. Hurricanes and flooding (96.35%) were the events experienced the most, followed by industrial fires (96.08%), chemical spills (86.84%), and tornadoes (79.82%).

The team found that when individuals experienced two or more events over the past five years, their MCS averages fell below the expected national levels.

Mental health is often overlooked in responding to and preparing for hazard exposures,” Sansom says. “However, in order to reach community resilience efforts, mental conditions need to be accounted for.”

The results of the study help to reveal the long-term mental impact hazards can have. More importantly, they underscore the need for public health interventions targeted toward these people as well as the communities where they reside.

Source: Texas A&M University