The news is full of stories of natural disasters - hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, forest fires, floods, and more. In fact, the number of disasters has increased 5 times over the past 50 years - driven by climate change and the weather extremes caused by it. And the trend won’t be changing anytime soon. But beyond the dramatic pictures on the news of homes and businesses underwater or destroyed by fire - what is the psychological toll that natural disasters take? In this article, we look at the link between natural disasters and mental health, and what can be done to address it.
Research shows a clear link between natural disasters and mental health
The impact of a natural disaster is often measured by obvious numbers such as fatalities and injuries, number of homes and buildings destroyed, and the cost of cleanup and repair. But those numbers don’t account for the emotional wounds suffered by survivors. Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said, “the toll that disasters put on mental health is well documented… and more Americans are affected by climate-driven disasters every year”.
Multiple studies show that natural disasters often result in a large number of ‘psychological casualties’. One well-known study, conducted after Hurricane Katrina, found that suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled in survivors, with 1 in 6 people meeting the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. The study went on to say that the potential for immediate and severe psychological trauma after a natural disaster is high, and related to “personal injury, injury or death of a loved one, damage to or loss of personal property (e.g., home) and pets, and disruption in or loss of livelihood”.
Another report suggests that natural disaster survivors are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions; even more specifically, people whose homes had suffered from adverse weather events had a 50% increase in risk for mental health issues. Following Hurricane Sandy, a telephone screening of local residents 6 months afterward, identified 15% of adults still suffering from PTSD.
How does our body and brain react to trauma like natural disaster?
When any kind of trauma occurs, the brain stem - the part of the brain which is responsible for the most vital functions of life (breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, etc.) - takes over. The brain stem kicks in the “fight or flight" response and all nonessential body and mind functions are shut down so that we can focus only on what we need to survive. When the threat ceases, the parasympathetic nervous system - that part of the brain that controls activities that occur when the body is at rest - steps in again and resumes the higher functions that were recently shut down.
However, for some trauma survivors, after-effects remain. Some survivors become so distressed that they become withdrawn or increase their use of drugs and alcohol. Even after the disaster ends, many people continue to feel an enormous amount of stress and anxiety that, if not dealt with, can turn into long-term mental health problems. Chronic stress can impair the parts of the brain which govern reason and self-control — leading to more unhealthy choices and an increased likelihood of addiction.
To add to the suffering, after a natural disaster many are unable to return to work, lack strong social support, or suffer the added financial burden of repairing or replacing damaged property. The long rebuilding process can perpetuate feelings of uncertainty and chronic stress. More vulnerable populations - children and the elderly, for example - are especially susceptible to mental health impacts of natural disasters. They may experience changes in behavior, memory, or executive function.
Other common psychological responses in the days and weeks following a disaster can be:
- Fear and anxiety about the future
- Disorientation; difficulty making decisions or concentrating
- Apathy and emotional numbness
- Nightmares about the event
- Irritability and anger
- Sadness and depression
- Feeling powerless
- Changes in eating patterns; loss of appetite or overeating
- Headaches, back, or stomach pains
- Difficulty sleeping or falling asleep
What can be done to better help survivors of natural disasters?
Implementing targeted psychological care is critical to saving lives, jobs, and families after a natural disaster. Many have advocated for local and federal government agencies to incorporate psychological recovery programs into their disaster preparedness plans - and that has been happening - but slowly.
On a local level, experts urge survivors to recognize that symptoms of mental health issues after a disaster are normal. And asking for help is not a weakness. To move toward healing, survivors can:
- Talk about the event: share experiences with others in order to relieve stress.
- Spend time with friends and family: stay in touch with family outside the area by phone if possible.
- Get plenty of rest and exercise, and eat properly.
- Avoid drugs and excessive drinking: drugs and alcohol may seem to temporarily remove stress, but in the long run, they create additional problems.
- Limit exposure to images of the disaster: it’s tempting, but watching news about the event over and over increases stress.
- Take one thing at a time: pick one urgent task and work on it, then once you accomplish that task, choose the next one, and so on.
- Join a support group of individuals with similar life experiences.
- Ask for more help when you need it: if you have strong feelings that won’t go away or if you are still struggling more than 4-6 weeks after the event, seek professional help.
Don’t try to cope alone. If you’ve been involved in a natural disaster and need help with mental health issues, consider contacting a qualified mental health professional
If you’re a client, request an appointment online or call our live support for assistance in scheduling care today. Our mental health professionals are trained in multiple mental health disorders and have experience treating them. If you’re a behavioral health provider looking to join our network, see all the benefits and learn how to apply here.