Mental Distress Can Linger Long After Hurricane

Not only do major hurricanes create devastation in their immediate wake, but they also cause lingering damage, both materially and emotionally, that can remain for years to come.

These after-effects are still haunting New Jersey residents impacted by Superstorm Sandy, a category 3 hurricane that came ashore in October 2012. Nearly three years later, affected residents are still at an increased risk of experiencing poor mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.

In a new study, researchers  found that among the approximately 100,000 New Jersey residents whose homes suffered extensive damage, 27 percent are still experiencing moderate or severe mental health distress, and 14 percent report the signs and symptoms of PTSD —even 2-1/2 years after the storm.

In fact, the health effects connected with catastrophic hurricane damage to one’s home are similar to those felt by people living in deep poverty.

The findings from this study, conducted by researchers from Rutgers University and New York University (NYU), in collaboration with Columbia University and Colorado State University, are based on face-to-face surveys with 1,000 randomly sampled New Jersey residents living in the state’s nine most-affected counties.

“Recovery, or stalled recovery, is not as dramatic as the storm and the initial response,” said Dr. David Abramson, the study’s principal investigator.

“But it is what exacts the greatest toll both financially and psychologically. Sandy may have occurred nearly three years ago, but it has had an enduring impact on those individuals and communities exposed to it,” he said.

The study was developed to help the state identify the health and well-being of residents exposed to the storm and to begin to identify unmet needs.

“It was striking to us and to our field team of over 30 interviewers how Sandy still dominated the lives of so many New Jersey residents,” added Dr. Donna Van Alst of Rutgers, the study’s co-principal investigator, “even 2-1/2 years after the event. People across the economic spectrum were affected.”

The findings showed that children in hurricane-damaged homes are at higher risk for mental health problems compared to children whose homes suffered no damage.

For example, children living in homes with minor damage were over 5 times as likely to feel sad or depressed as were children in homes that were not damaged, over 8 times as likely to have difficulty sleeping, and 5 times as likely to feel nervous or afraid.

Furthermore, the health effects connected with catastrophic damage to one’s home are similar to those felt by people living in deep poverty. Many residents whose homes suffered major damage said that they often did not have enough money for rent or mortgage, to pay for utilities, to pay for transportation, or to pay for all the food that they or their family needed.

Mold was strongly linked to both asthma and mental health distress.

“The similarities between hurricanes Katrina and Sandy are quite disturbing,” noted NYU’s Abramson. “Many adults and children are still experiencing emotional and psychological effects, so long after the storm passed. In a significant number of cases housing damage is at the heart of the problem, and it’s very concerning to hear that so many of the federally financed programs have ended even though the needs still clearly persist.”

Source: New York University