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Study eyes the mental health impact of Hurricane Harvey

The Buffalo Bayou in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
The Buffalo Bayou in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

Recent research shows that exposure to natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey are associated with increased stress and anxiety – data that will be used to better understand the mental health impact of future storms. These findings may help local officials and relief organizations better prepare to offer adequate care in the wake of the next disaster, according to Rebecca Schwartz, PhD, Feinstein Institute for Medical Research associate investigator, and her team, which presented the findings during a roundtable discussion at the American Public Health Association annual meeting.

Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on August 25, 2017, resulting in widespread flooding throughout the region and crippling Houston, the fourth-largest city in the U.S. One hundred and two deaths were attributed to Harvey and approximately 30,000 were displaced in Texas alone. Previous research shows that hurricanes have a profound impact on the mental health of storm victims. Dr. Schwartz and her team examined how different levels of exposure to typical hurricane-related issues or events impacted mental health.

They traveled to Houston to meet with community members impacted by Harvey to survey their mental health needs. They assessed “hurricane exposure,” a broad look at how many hurricane-related issues a community member faced in the storm’s aftermath. Post-storm problems ranged from dealing with difficult work commutes or losing power/electricity to more serious issues, including the injury or death of a friend or family member.

“We found that increased exposure to Harvey, or the more difficulties an individual faced when coping with the storm, the higher his or her stress level,” said Dr. Schwartz. “By anticipating the mental health needs of those affected by the storm, we can develop an outreach plan to help individuals alleviate this stress and potentially prevent mental health difficulties if faced with future storms or other types of natural disasters.”

In addition to studying stress and anxiety, Dr. Schwartz and her team will analyze the data from Hurricane Harvey to examine depression and post-traumatic stress.

“Stress is known to be an important and serious risk factor for disease complications, but much less is known about how the stress of natural disasters affects individuals,” said Kevin J. Tracey, MD, president and CEO of the Feinstein Institute. “Dr. Schwartz's innovative study of hurricane survivors focuses attention on the importance of this factor in population health.”

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