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How Harvey And Irma Will Affect The Mental Health Of Millions

When major disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit, the first priority is to keep people safe. This process can involve dramatic evacuations, rescues and searches.

However, after the initial emergency passes, a much longer process of recovering and rebuilding begins.

For individuals, families and communities, this can last months or even years.

This work often begins at the same time as the national media starts packing up and public attention shifts to the next major news story.

At the University of Missouri’s Disaster and Community Crisis Center, we study disaster recovery, rebuilding and resilience.

See Video Below.

Much of our research shows that natural disasters can have a meaningful impact on survivors’ mental and behavioral health.

These issues typically emerge as people try to recover and move forward after the devastation.

Health and disasters

Immediately after a natural disaster, it’s normal to experience fear, anxiety, sadness or shock.

However, if these symptoms continue for weeks to months following the event, they may indicate a more serious psychological issue.

The disaster mental health problem most commonly studied by psychologists and psychiatrists is post-traumatic stress disorder, which can occur after frightening events that threaten one’s own life and the lives for family and friends.

Following a disaster, people might lose their jobs or be displaced from their homes.

This can contribute to depression, particularly as survivors attempt to cope with loss related to the disaster.

It’s not easy to lose sentimental possessions or face economic uncertainties. People facing these challenges can feel hopeless or in despair.

Substance use can increase following disasters, but usually only for individuals who already used tobacco, alcohol or drugs before the disaster.

In a study of Hurricane Katrina survivors who had been displaced to Houston, Texas, approximately one-third reported increasing their tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use after the storm.

There’s also evidence that domestic violence increases in communities experiencing a disaster.

After Hurricane Katrina, another study found that, among women in Mississippi who were displaced from their homes, domestic violence rates increased dramatically.

Perpetrators may feel a loss of control following the disaster and turn to abusive behavior to try to gain that control back in their personal relationships.

Disaster recovery

While many disaster survivors show resilience, studies have shown mental and behavioral health issues cropping up weeks, months and even years after a disaster.

Rebuilding can be a long process, with a series of ups and downs. Survivors may bounce back after a few months, or they may experience ongoing stressors, such as financial issues or problems finding permanent housing.

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