Here’s why effective crisis response needs to include proactive mental health support.
It’s already well known that natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires can cause trauma. The combination of losing loved ones, homes, possessions, and a general sense of stability can result in sadness, hopelessness, and depression that can last years after the event.
Recently, researchers have started tracking mental health after major natural disasters. Now, a couple years after Hurricane Maria, researchers have stats on how this disaster has affected mental health in the region—and the implications that has for everyone during a climate crisis.
How Hurricane Maria Affected Puerto Rican Children
Hurricane Maria caused severe damage to Puerto Rico in 2017, leaving flattened homes, loss of electricity, and a loss of around 3,000 human lives—making it one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
Researchers surveyed nearly 100,000 students at Puerto Rican public schools, finding that:
46 percent had their homes damaged
58 percent had a loved one leave Puerto Rico
32 percent were short on food or water
And 30 percent felt their lives were at risk at one point.
All of these are risk factors for pain and trauma. For example, having a loved one leave the island can cause social instability in the child’s life, even if the person is still alive, and losing a home can cause feelings of sadness and grief.
As a result, 7 percent of the surveyed children demonstrated symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, symptoms of depression were also common, especially among girls.
Mental Health + Natural Disasters: Implications for the Future
Hurricane Maria isn’t the first disaster to leave behind mental health problems. Researchers have found similar trends in previous disasters. Most notably, rates of PTSD were high in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when many Americans were stranded in the flooded city for days before being rescued.
Residents of Joplin, MO, also experienced high rates of PTSD following a devastating tornado that killed 161 people in May 2011. In fact, two and a half years after the tornado, 26.7 percent of surveyed residents still met the criteria for PTSD, according to a 2015 study by researchers at the University of Missouri.
Unfortunately, the climate crisis is predicted to bring more extreme weather, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Floods and wildfires have already become more common, and that trend is expected to continue. Both can have a destructive effect on communities by damaging homes, forcing relocation, and risking human lives.
Floods and wildfires can also have a significant impact on physical health by harming air quality with mold and bacteria (in the case of floods) and lung-harming particles (in the case of wildfires). Learn more here about how climate change can impact your health.
It’s clear that going forward, effective crisis management will require a mental health component. Mental health support after natural disasters should be proactive, instead of waiting for signs of mental illnesses to surface or for survivors to seek help on their own. This allows families to truly heal from climate disasters and show resilience in the face of tragedy.
Climate and health: precipitation extremes. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014. (Accessed on August 20, 2019 at https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/effects/precipitation_extremes.htm.)
Disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2019. (Accessed on August 20, 2019 at https://www.samhsa.gov/disaster-preparedness.)
Houston JB, Spialek ML, Stevens J, First J, Mieseler VL, Pfefferbaum B. 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado experience, mental health reactions, and service utilization: cross-sectional assessments at approximately 6 months and 2.5 years post-event. PLoS Curr. 2015 Oct 26;7.
Hurricane Katrina survivors struggle with mental health years later, study says. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012. (Accessed on August 20, 2019 at https://www.princeton.edu/news/2012/01/24/hurricane-katrina-survivors-struggle-mental-health-years-later-study-says.)
Managing traumatic stress. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2011. (Accessed on August 20, 2019 at https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/tornadoes.)
Orengo-Aguayo R, Stewart RW, de Arellano MA, Suarez-Kindy JL, Young J. Disaster exposure and mental health among Puerto Rican youths after Hurricane Maria. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(4):e192619
Recovering from wildfires. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2011. (Accessed on August 20, 2019 at https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/wildfire.)