Repeated exposure to hurricanes, whether direct, indirect or media-driven, is linked to adverse psychological symptoms and may be associated with increased mental health problems, according to an unpublished study by researchers at the University of California to Irvine.
The findings, published online today in Open JAMA Network, are essential for understanding the psychological impacts of recurring natural disasters, especially in the context of the growing threat of climate change. Instead of individuals acclimating to repeated exposure to disasters, the results demonstrated that over time, responses to subsequent hurricanes become more negative.
“We show that people are unlikely to habituate or adapt to climate-related natural disasters that will increase in frequency and severity in coming years. Our results suggest a potential mental health crisis associated with those who directly experienced the storm or knew someone who did, as well as those who spent several hours talking to the media about the hurricane,” said Dana Rose Garfin, Professor UCI Associate Nursing and Public Health Assistant and first author of the report.
The first longitudinal study of its kind was conducted by Garfin and her colleagues, Roxane Cohen Silver, Professor Emeritus of Psychological, Medicine and Health Sciences; E. Alison Holman, professor of nursing; both from the UCI and from the principal researchers of the research; Rebecca Thompson, Ph.D., UCI Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychological Sciences; and Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Ph.D., assistant professor of Earth system science and research fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. The team assessed Florida residents in the hours before Hurricane Irma landfall and re-screened those same people after Hurricanes Irma and Michael to detect any mental health changes that may have occurred. over time. Both were Category 5 storms that hit in succession – Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and Hurricane Michael in October 2018.
The team found that repeated exposure to the threat of catastrophic hurricanes was linked to symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and lifelong fear and worry. In turn, these psychological symptoms were associated with greater social and work-related impairment, including difficulty interacting with others and performing work tasks and other daily activities.
“Some distress is normal following traumatic and extremely stressful events,” Garfin said. “Most people recover and show resilience over time. However, as catastrophic climate-related hurricanes and other natural disasters such as wildfires and heat waves intensify, this natural healing process can be disrupted by repeated exposure to threats.Additionally, we followed people longitudinally over two hurricane seasons, and our data shows that as people experience multiple occurrences over time, psychological symptoms are accumulating and intensifying, suggesting a mental health crisis.”
Anxiety can be an adaptive response to disasters and can motivate people to take protective action in preparation for the next event, the team members said, and recommend that future research explore how to take advantage of this reaction of so as not to increase mental health problems. They also believe that the strong link between media engagement and distress suggests that social channels and mainstream media can play a critical role in effectively communicating the risk of increased distress with repeated exposure to threats.
This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under grant numbers SBE 1760764, BCS 1902925, and SES 1811883.
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