PTSD After Natural Disasters May Foster Personal Growth

A new study of how a community responded to a tragic natural disaster suggests survivors can actually use the experience to enhance personal growth.

Researchers from the Disaster and Community Crisis Center at the University of Missouri studied survivors of the 2011 Joplin Missouri tornado which killed 161 people, injured 1,150, and destroyed approximately one-third of the city’s homes.

Individuals who experience such disasters can exhibit a range of mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress. Investigators discovered survivors of natural disasters have the potential to experience positive changes or growth in addition to the stress they experience.

A key factor appears to be sharing thoughts and feelings with family, friends, and neighbors. Researchers say the finding of the importance of shared communication can help those working in communities after a disaster.

“When disasters occur, mental health professionals — community organizers, social workers, case managers, and counselors — often work in partnership with local, state, and federal organizations to respond,” said Jennifer First, doctoral candidate in the University of Missouri School of Social Work. First is also the disaster mental health program manager with the Disaster and Community Crisis Center.

“It is important that these professionals understand that the negative consequences of trauma can coexist with positive perceptions of growth. In fact, post-traumatic stress may drive a search for meaning following a disaster.”

Prior research has indicated that several factors, including appreciation of life, relating to others, personal strength, new possibilities, and spiritual change, contribute to post-traumatic growth.

In the new study, investgators sought to learn more about the relationship between post-traumatic stress, personal growth, and communication with friends and family. To do this, researchers worked with a Joplin community mental health partner using a sample of 438 adult survivors of the Joplin tornado, two and a half years after the event.

The study appears in the Journal of Family Social Work.

Participants were asked how they were impacted by the tornado, about post-traumatic stress symptoms, and if they talked about the tornado with people they knew.

“We found that more communication between people who experienced the tornado and their families, friends, and neighbors was related to more post-traumatic growth among survivors,” said Vicky Mieseler, chief administrative officer with the Ozark Center in Joplin, who led the community mental health response to the tornado and helped conduct this study.

“A takeaway is that mental health providers can help foster growth by promoting connections and communication among survivors in long-term, post-disaster communities.”

Source: University of Missouri