Hurricanes and Other Disasters Impact Mental Health—and Not Just for Those Directly Affected

The constant threats of the impending disaster. The heartbreak as it unfolds. And then, the weariness as the impact is felt for weeks and months. Natural disasters—like the recent rash of hurricanes—can bring unexpected mental health challenges.

This was proven during one of the nation’s most devastating natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina, a 2005 storm that killed more than 1,880 people. Immediately after that event, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than half of New Orleans residents showed possible signs of needing mental health treatment. Six months later, many were still living in trailers or hotels supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). A study of those displaced found high rates of disability due to depression, anxiety and other challenges. Other research showed new mental health problems among children. The problems persisted long term.

Studies showed that up to 50 percent of Katrina survivors suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A study conducted by Columbia University found that 36 percent of Katrina-affected children showed serious emotional disturbances. In the case of Superstorm Sandy, which hit the northeast coast of the U.S. in 2012, more than 20 percent of residents reported PTSD; 33 percent reported depression, and 46 percent reported anxiety. When groups were compared by the degree of exposure to the disaster, the higher-exposed group showed 30 percent more PTSD than the less-exposed group.

A new wave of hurricanes has impacted the U.S., and the people caught in the midst certainly can lay claim to significant anxieties and stress. Stress before the disaster strikes can lead to hoarding of supplies, which may lead to shortages. Immediately after a disaster, health issues may focus on physical traumas and outbreak of disease. But long-term, the attention again turns to mental health, with PTSD, chronic depression and anxiety all issues. Children may worry about the potential devastation of other storms. Older adults may need additional social support. First responders and recovery workers may show signs of mental fatigue.

Some research shows that we all may be impacted—no matter how far we are from the disaster. Traumatic events may create a desire to watch TV coverage for hours on end. A study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that after the September 11, 2001, bombings at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, people watched an average of eight hours a day of news coverage. Children watched at least three hours of TV coverage of the event.

“Research generally finds an association between watching media coverage of traumatic events and stress symptoms. However, most studies cannot answer the important question of whether watching television of the event makes people worse or if people who have more severe stress reactions are the ones who choose to watch more television coverage of the event,” the authors wrote.

Research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that media coverage of collective traumas may trigger psychological distress in individuals outside the directly affected community. It studied people during the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon. Watching six hours or more of media exposure led to higher acute stress symptoms. Researchers said this could lead to more prolonged stress.

While it’s good to be concerned about those directly impacted by natural or manmade disasters, it is equally important to monitor your mental health—and the health of loved ones—during these stressful times. For those who may have underlying mental health issues, be extra vigilant.

  • Limit exposure to news coverage.
  • Process feelings with a friend or family member.
  • Replace media consumption with activities that encourage positive feelings, such as exercising or visiting family or friends.
  • Volunteer or donate funds to help those impacted.
  • Monitor your own mental health and that of loved ones. If help is needed, seek it out.

American Journal of Orthopsychiatry
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration