How mental health shapes recovery after a disaster
By Jutta Joormann
When disaster strikes, people’s lives are changed in unexpected and unprecedented ways. Natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks and chemical warfare, and public health disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic all cause individuals to suffer in a myriad of ways for which they are often unprepared.
When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, nobody could have predicted the immense scale of its effects. The disaster led to 1,833 deaths, destroyed homes and businesses, and caused an estimated 125 billion dollars in overall damages (EM-DAT, 2021). The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina affected millions of people in different ways, most notably the individuals and families who lived in the disaster zone and survived. These survivors suffered an array of hardships: many lacked adequate access to resources such as food, water, and medication; needed to relocate; worried for the safety of themselves and their families; and/or experienced the death of a loved one.
Due to the stress and trauma they experience, survivors of natural disasters are at an acute risk for a host of mental health issues: Depression, substance use disorder, anxiety disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder are all commonly reported by disaster victims (Goldmann and Galea, 2014). In addition, survivors often experience posttraumatic stress symptoms without meeting the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder, and these symptoms can persist for years after the disaster.
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