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Mental Stress for Hurricane Survivors

Effects on Mental Health May Last Years After the Storm, Study Shows
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 12, 2006 -- With the Atlantic hurricane season starting in less than two weeks, a new report shows that hurricanes can cast a long shadow on survivors' mental healthmental health.

The report comes from sociology graduate student David Russell and colleagues at Florida State University. Russell's team studied 975 adolescents in Florida's Miami-Dade County who lived through 1992's Hurricane Andrew.

"At the time, the damage inflicted by Hurricane Andrew was unprecedented in U.S. history," write Russell and colleagues.

Data came from mental health surveys. The youths took the first survey before Hurricane Andrew and the other surveys over the five to seven years after the hurricane.

The findings were presented in New Orleans at the Southern Sociological Society's annual meeting and have been submitted for review to the journal Social Forces.

Stressed by the Storm

On the posthurricane surveys, participants noted if they had experienced any of these stressors from Hurricane Andrew:

  • Away from home for longer than one week: 16.8%
  • Home or apartment damaged: 8.9%
  • Mother or father lost job after hurricane: 4.2%
  • Changed schools due to hurricane: 2.8%
  • In a shelter during hurricane: 1.8%

Students who endured those hurricane-related stresses were more likely than their peers to report other stressful events and symptoms of depressiondepression in future surveys.

Students who had experienced stressful events and psychological problems before Hurricane Andrew were "more adversely affected" than others by hurricane-related stressors, write Russell and colleagues.

Stress Upon Stress

The hurricane left a trail of problems in its wake, and those problems may have added to participants' mental stresses.

"The experience of emotional turmoil following this disaster appears to increase risk for certain stressful life events, such as failing a grade in school, being sent away from home, or having to live apart from one's parents," the researchers write.

"We believe that these additional adversities act synergistically with previous stress and distress to increase one's level of depressive symptoms in young adulthood," Russell's team continues.

They add that the findings might help response workers in future disasters identify people at high risk of developing mental health problems.

Russell and colleagues point out that they may have underestimated Hurricane Andrew's mental health impact because the data didn't cover participants who moved away after the hurricane.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath may have been bigger threats to mental health, the researchers write.

The Atlantic hurricane season is just around the corner. It officially lasts from June 1 to November 30 each year, but hurricanes can happen at other times.

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