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Study finds repeated exposure to natural disasters impacts mental health

2022 Jan 15, 14:13, Texas

According to a recent research, repeated exposure to major disasters does not make people mentally stronger and leads to long-term mental health issues.

The study has been published in the 'Natural Hazards Journal'.

"We discovered the reverse of the adage 'what does not kill you makes you stronger,'" said the study's lead author Garett Sansom, research assistant professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health at the School of Public Health.

Sansom and a team of Texas A&M researchers studied individuals from the Houston area, which is susceptible to hurricanes and flooding as well as industrial emergencies.

From 2000 to 2020, Texas -- one of the states most prone to natural disasters -- experienced 33 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared major disasters. Many of these -- hurricanes, winter weather, drought, and flooding -- impacted the Houston area. The area has also been impacted by emergencies such as explosions and chemical releases at nearby industrial facilities.

According to the research team, the combination of natural disasters and emergencies from industrial facilities presented a unique opportunity to observe the impacts.

"There is an unfortunate truth that many communities that reside along the Gulf Coast are at the nexus of exposures from natural and anthropogenic, or human-caused, hazards," Sansom said.

The team used a 12-item short-form health survey to gather information. The survey assessed cumulative impacts from exposure to evaluate changes over time, producing a composite score for both mental (MCS) and physical (PCS) health.

The majority of the respondents reported that they experienced many hazardous events over the past five years. Hurricanes and flooding (96.35 per cent) were the events experienced the most, followed by industrial fires (96.08), chemical spills (86.84), and tornados (79.82).

The team found that when individuals experienced two or more events over the past five years, their MCS averages fell below the expected national levels.

"Mental health is often overlooked in responding to and preparing for hazard exposures," Sansom said.

"However, in order to reach community resilience efforts, mental conditions need to be accounted for," he added.

The results of the study helped to reveal the long-term mental impact hazards can have. More importantly, they underscored the need for public health interventions targeted toward these individuals as well as the communities where they resided.

Sansom's co-authors included Courtney Thompson and Lindsay Sansom, both from the Texas A&M University Department of Geography, Leanne Fawkes, graduate research assistant in Environmental & Occupational Health, and Elizabeth Boerlin, a doctoral student in Occupational Safety and Health.


health issues Mental Health natural disaster Devastation
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