Health as a Disaster Victim

Health as a Disaster Victim

It happened in New York after the September 11 attacks and in Madrid after the March 11, 2003, train bombings. It’s happening to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and to Israeli settlers who’ve been forcibly removed from their homes in Gaza.

Months and even years after a catastrophic event, the prevalence of anxiety, depression, and mood disorders among victims is high, says SPH epidemiologist Sandro Galea, who studies the mental health consequences of disasters. The prevalence of depression after a major disaster is in fact about twice the baseline of what you’d expect, he says.

Two recent studies illustrate the point:

Five to seven months after Hurricane Katrina, Galea and his research team surveyed more than a thousand residents who had been living in affected parts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi before the storm. The vast majority of survey respondents, both in the New Orleans metro area and in the remainder of the sample, said they’d experienced at least one of ten different categories of hurricane-related stressors, including the death of a loved one, robbery, injury, or property loss.

Among the New Orleans residents, anxiety-mood disorders were most likely to follow physical illness or injury and physical adversity, while for the others such disorders tended to follow property loss. The researchers found that “avoidable stressors associated with the slow government response to Hurricane Katrina (e.g., physical adversity) had important implications for the mental health of people who lived through Katrina.” In future disasters, they say, practical and logistical assistance should be provided promptly and efficiently, “not only on humanitarian grounds, but also as a way to minimize the adverse mental health effects of disasters.”

In a second study, Galea and his team interviewed nearly 200 Israeli residents of the Gaza strip one week before they were forced to evacuate their homes. The team found that the biggest predictor of declining mental health, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder among the group was not the evacuation itself but rather the loss of tangible social and economic resources—including jobs, houses, and family links.

Galea says the results suggest that if an event such as the Gaza relocation is unavoidable, material support should be given those affected by the event to protect them from financial and social loss. Such support, he says, is critical to their emotional and physical well-being.

Galea oversees the University of Michigan arm of the newly funded National Center for Disaster Mental Health Research, a five-university consortium that studies the health consequences of disasters. Michigan is the lead research institution in the consortium, the first of its kind with the explicit goal of having the money and infrastructure in place to allow researchers to respond immediately after a disaster happens.

By Laura Bailey

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