Mental Health and Natural Disasters

The impacts of natural disasters are usually indicated by death toll, damage to property and economic withdrawals. What often goes unseen are the mental health issues victims sustain after witnessing their hard-earned life get annihilated. A hurricane or earthquake may only last a moment but the mental trauma that the people bear lasts a lifetime.

Natural disasters have only become more prevalent in recent years. In the past decade, there have been twice as many catastrophic natural events than the decade before. [1] With a strong relationship established between the ongoing climate change and natural disasters, we can only expect the severity and frequency of these natural disasters to intensify. Such events have calamitous impacts on the lives of individuals, especially young children. Rebuilding an individual’s livelihood after a disaster has been shown to correlate with overwhelming symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yet there inadequate research is conducted into the long-term mental health impact of natural disasters, particularly in low and middle-income countries, where economic and civil reestablishment occurs at a slower rate than high-income countries. A small number of mental health studies which were conducted showed alarming rates of psychiatric morbidity lasting up to two or three years [4].

The Indian Ocean earthquake following the cataclysmic tsunami in 2004 left eight countries with colossal destruction and resulted in the death of over a quarter million people within a matter of hours. It was one of the worst natural disasters in human history. The beaches of Southern India and Thailand may have recovered to once again become relaxing and rejuvenating hotspots for tourist, but many of those who lost their livelihoods and loved ones have yet to recover emotionally. One year following the horrors of the Asian earthquake, 27.2% of the victims in Southern India were diagnosed with psychiatric problems such as PTSD and depression, followed by alcohol abuse in men and anxiety disorder in women. 79.7% of the undiagnosed victims showed other psychological symptoms with a likelihood of developing into mental disorders in the coming years if left untreated [2]. Such mental health issues are not recognised within small communities of developing countries, meaning natural disaster victims experiencing psychiatric problems are not treated medically due to the lack of mental health awareness and infrastructure, sometimes leading some to suicide.

More recent studies conducted in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017 reported a similar increase in psychiatric problems and suicidal ideation. It was the largest natural disaster in the US of our generation, causing 3,000 casualties and destroying $100 million in property in a community which already had 45% of its residents living in poverty [3]. The debacle of this community has rather become a media honeypot and a topic of controversy with regards to President Trump’s administration. What has gone unnoticed are the victim’s mental and emotional hardship. A study conducted by Ronald C. Kessler an American Sociologist discovered that within the three months following the Hurricane Maria, the average local suicide rate had increased from 18 to 25 suicides per month. The research concluded as time progresses the symptoms and outcomes persist and sometimes even intensify due to the psychosocial stressors correlated with natural disasters [3]. There is a clear relationship between the increase in suicide rates and destruction of a person’s livelihood after a natural disaster.

Disaster-related psychopathology should also be used as a quantitative and qualitative indicator of the impacts and severity of such events. It is a signal which indicates the recovery of a population following a collective trauma. In general, mental health awareness and diagnosis needs to expand globally, and must also be implemented in disaster relief programs, to set a healthy and sustainable recovery course for the victims

Bhavya Tripathi is a first-year student in Business at King’s College London. He is interested in mental health, especially in rural South Asia.

Endnotes

[1] https://theconversation.com/are-catastrophic-disasters-striking-more-often-83599

[2] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.4161/dish.24705

[3]https://edition.cnn.com/2018/08/28/health/puerto-rico-gw-report-excess-deaths/index.html

[4]http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/ptsd/ptsd-and-suicide-after-natural-disasters

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