According to a first-of-its-kind study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, repeated exposure to hurricanes, whether direct, indirect or through the media, is associated with adverse psychological symptoms and may be associated with increased mental health problems.
Findings published online today in JAMA open network, are critical to understanding the psychological impact of recurring natural disasters, especially in the context of the escalating threat of climate change. The results showed that instead of people getting used to the recurring impacts of natural disasters, over time, the reaction to subsequent hurricanes becomes more negative.
We show that people are unlikely to become accustomed or accustomed to climate-related natural disasters, the frequency and severity of which will increase in the coming years. Our findings suggest a potential mental health crisis associated with those who directly experienced the hurricane or knew someone who did, as well as those who spent several hours talking to the media about the hurricane.”
Dana Rose Garfin, UCI Associate Professor of Nursing and Public Health and first author of the report.
The first longitudinal study of its kind was conducted by Garfin and her colleagues, Roxanne Cohen Silver, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Medicine, and Health; E. Alison Holman, Professor of Nursing; from both the UCI and the principal investigators of the study; Rebecca Thompson, PhD, UCI Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychological Sciences; and Gabriel Wong-Parodi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Earth System Science and Fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Environmental Institute. The team surveyed Florida residents hours before Hurricane Irma made landfall and surveyed the same people again after Hurricanes Irma and Michael to identify any mental health changes that may have occurred over time. Both were Category 5 storms that struck 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 associated with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and constant fear and worry. In turn, these psychological symptoms were associated with more severe social and occupational impairments, including difficulty interacting with others, completing work tasks, and other daily activities.
“Some distress is normal after traumatic and extremely stressful events,” Garfin said. “Most people recover over time and show resilience. However, as climate-related catastrophic hurricanes and other natural disasters, such as wildfires and heat waves, escalate, this natural healing process can be disrupted by repeated exposure to threats. two hurricane seasons, and our data shows that as people experience multiple events over time, psychological symptoms accumulate and intensify, potentially heralding a mental health crisis.”
Anxiety may be an adaptive response to natural disasters and may motivate people to take protective measures in preparation for the next event, and encourage future research to explore how to harness this response in a way that does not exacerbate mental illness, team members say. They also believe that the close relationship between media participation and disaster suggests that social channels and the mainstream media can play a critical role in effectively communicating the risk of a worsening disaster with repeated exposure to threats.