- Living through serious storms can increase the risk of depression and anxiety.
- The number of floods and severe weather events has been on the rise.
- Some storm survivors can develop PTSD or other long-term disorders.
- But there are clear steps to take to help people through a traumatic event.
In recent decades, the number of floods and severe weather events reported around the world has increased, in part worsened by climate change.
When severe storms hit communities, like the massive Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, they can cause damage to homes, roads, and power lines, putting the safety of residents at risk.
But it’s not just infrastructure that takes a hit. The physical and mental health of storm survivors can be affected long after the clouds have parted.
Now a new study conducted in England suggests that people who live in weather- or flood-damaged homes may also have an increased risk for experiencing mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.
The new study draws on data collected through the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS), a nationally representative survey that’s conducted every 7 years in England.
The most recent survey ran from May 2014 to September 2015.
For the first time, it included a question about weather- and flood-damaged homes.
Approximately 1 in 20 people who completed the survey reported living in homes that had been damaged by wind, rain, snow, or flood in the previous 6 months.
Participants who lived in storm- or flood-damaged homes were more likely than others to report symptoms consistent with common mental health conditions. They were also more likely to report suicidal thoughts or a history of suicide attempts.
These findings add to a growing body of evidence showing that severe storms and other disasters can have negative effects on mental health.
“This has been something that we’ve been seeing in different studies over the past several years,” Melissa Tracy, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, University at Albany, told Healthline.
“There’s been a number of studies that have looked specifically at post-traumatic stress disorder and depression as some of the major issues that do emerge,” she continued, “especially people [who] are in situations where there are prolonged stressors related to being displaced from their home, or trying to get repairs done on their home.”
People can exhibit great resilience in the face of disasters. Many of them eventually recover from the stress that such events can cause.
But in the days and weeks following a severe storm or other disaster, survivors often struggle with feelings of loss.
“Grief is a near universal phenomena after extreme climate-related disasters such as a hurricane — grief over loss of possessions and cherished mementos, loss of home and community, and loss of feelings of safety and stability,” Dr. Joshua Morganstein, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at Uniformed Services University, told Healthline.
Survivors may experience insomnia, irritability, and decreased sense of safety, he says.
They may also engage in unhealthy coping behaviors to manage negative emotions, such as binge drinking.
Some of them ultimately develop mental health conditions, such as PTSD, major depressive disorder, or an anxiety disorder.
If left untreated, these conditions can hurt their ability to work, maintain social relationships, and manage other aspects of daily life.
To limit the negative effects of severe storms and other disasters, experts emphasize the importance of meeting survivors’ basic needs — including food, water, shelter, and safety.
Support from mental health professionals who understand the effects that disasters can have is also important for helping communities and individuals cope with the aftermath, Morganstein says.
“Research and field experience have revealed that interventions which are most helpful are those that enhance a sense of safety, promote calming, increase self and community efficacy, improve social connectedness, and enhance hope or optimism,” he said.
Some community members may be more likely than others to experience adverse mental health effects in the aftermath of a disaster, he adds.
For example, lower-income residents are more likely to live in neighborhoods or homes that are highly susceptible to storm damage.
Residents with limited resources and those who live with disabilities may also face significant barriers to receiving and acting on evacuation orders.
People with preexisting health conditions also have an increased risk for adverse health effects due to the disruptions in medication supply chains and other health services that often occur after a disaster.
“The people who are most vulnerable to suffering the most after these events are often the people who are most vulnerable before the event,” Tracy explained.
“Lower-resourced people, lower-income people, and those who don’t have a lot of social support are the ones who are going to have the hardest time recovering,” she said.
According to Morganstein, identifying vulnerable community members and developing strategies to meet their needs is an essential part of effective disaster planning.
Public agencies and other community groups play a pivotal role in providing disaster relief.
But individuals and families can also take steps to prepare for a potential emergency.
For example, Morganstein encourages people to maintain an adequate supply of essential medications.
“If everyone impacted by a hurricane had 7 or more days of medications, far fewer people would experience adverse health effects of abruptly discontinuing their medication,” he said.
Morganstein also advises families to develop a family emergency plan, learn about their school and work emergency plans, and keep an emergency kit on hand. That kit should include items such as a flashlight, batteries, and several days’ worth of food and water.
“When people know how they will respond and they have important items to care for themselves and their family during a hurricane, they can focus on executing their plan rather than experiencing distress that often results from being unprepared,” he said.