May 15, 2006

Hurricanes linked to long-term mental stress

By Charnicia Huggins

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Survivors of the1992 hurricane
Andrew were not only impacted by the immediate consequences of
the storm. New study findings show that the storm indirectly
affected their mental well-being up to seven years afterwards.

The findings imply that the survivors of last year's
hurricane Katrina, which had a greater economic and societal
impact than hurricane Andrew, may need to be assessed and
treated for mental health problems both now and in the future.

"If they are not treated for psychological stress, they
might experience psychological problems for many years to
come," study investigator David Russell, a doctoral student at
Florida State University, told Reuters Health.

Exposure to natural disasters can increase a person's risk
for later mental health problems, as various reports have
shown. One such natural disaster, Hurricane Andrew, resulted in
25 deaths in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and left more than
250,000 people homeless, in addition to the 82,000 businesses
that were destroyed or damaged and the estimated $35 billion in
economic losses.

Studies have documented the short-term consequences of the
category five storm on the victims' mental health, often using
information from interviews conducted within two years of the
hurricane, yet few researchers have examined the storm's
long-term mental health effects.

To that end, Russell and his colleagues analyzed data
collected from residents of Miami-Dade county who were
adolescents at the time of the storm. The first set of data
were collected from students in all 73 of the county's public
middle and high schools, as well as alternative schools, before
the hurricane, as part of another study, and the second and
third sets were collected afterwards.

Their findings were presented during the recent meeting of
the Southern Sociological Society.

Girls, those who initially reported experiencing more
depression before the hurricane, and those exposed to high
levels of stressful events before the hurricane, appeared to be
more adversely affected by Hurricane Andrew-related stressors
than did their counterparts, the report indicates.

Yet, stressful events associated with the hurricane, such
as being away from home -- as was reported by 17 percent of
study participants -- were not directly associated with
depressive symptoms five to seven years after the hurricane.
Instead, such events increased the adolescents' risk of
experiencing other stressful events after the hurricane, such
as failing a grade in school or being involved in an accident.
And, the report indicates, it was these latter stressors that
were related to an increased risk of depressive symptoms five
to seven years after the hurricane.

Thus, there was a "long-term link" between hurricane
Andrew-related stress and depressive symptoms experienced years
afterwards, Russell said, and the "mechanism driving this
process was the distress experienced as a result of the storm."

There were a "set of adversities that worked in between
that were really the driving force of the increased risk of
mental health problems," Russell explained. He described those
adversities as a "spark plug for igniting a number of other

In light of their research, Russell and his colleagues
"thought it might be relevant to generalize our findings to
victims of hurricane Katrina," which, though similar in
strength to hurricane Andrew, had far greater consequences in
terms of its "human and social impact," he told Reuters Health.

Many New Orleans residents were stranded in the days
following hurricane Katrina, which resulted in feelings of
hopelessness and isolation, and hundreds of thousands were
displaced from their homes. What's more, the death rate was 50
times greater than that of Hurricane Andrew and its total
economic cost is expected to exceed 200 billion dollars,
according to analysts' predictions.

These observations, in conjunction with the current study's
findings, "suggest that persons exposed to hurricane Katrina
will be at elevated risk for mental health problems for years
to come," Russell and his team conclude.