Hurricane Sandy caused a wide path of destruction and devastation. Many people who survived the hurricane experienced significant losses, including loss of possessions, homes, and livelihood. Some even lost loved ones in the disaster. However, not everyone who survived the hurricane will develop posttraumatic stress (PTSD). Disasters can be man-made, such as terrorist attacks, or natural, such as hurricanes or tornadoes. Other types of disasters that can cause extreme traumatic responses include accidents that result in death or injury. Understanding what factors contribute to PTSD, and why some people develop PTSD after a disaster and others don’t, will help clinicians better identify those most at risk for negative mental health outcomes.
To explore this topic further, Carol S. North of the Department of Psychiatry and Surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center recently conducted an exhaustive study of existing research gathered from 10 disasters. The participants included 811 survivors of disasters of different types. North reviewed demographic factors and exposure factors and discovered that the type of the disaster was not predictive of PTSD, but age, sex, and other elements were. “Even individuals exposed to the same disasters were found to differ markedly in outcomes, and disasters of the same type varied considerably in associated mental health effects,” she said. Specifically, being female, young, and Hispanic predicted PTSD. Also, the less-educated individuals who had witnessed a death or an injury were more likely to develop PTSD than those who had not. Another strong indicator of PTSD was the presence of a preexisting mental health condition. The participants who responded to the disaster by numbing or avoiding were also more vulnerable to symptoms of PTSD.
Overall, the majority of the survivors, two-thirds, did not develop any psychological problems as a result of the disaster. Of those who did, the most common was PTSD, followed closely by depression. Although it has been suggested that substance misuse increases after a disaster, it was not evidenced in this study. North did discover, however, that numbing and avoiding emerged as one of the strongest predictors of PTSD, but was present in only one-fourth of the survivors. In sum, the results demonstrate that it is not the disaster itself that predicts mental health outcomes, but the unique aspect of each individual’s exposure, demographic make-up, and mental health status.
North, Carol S., Julianne Oliver, and Anand Pandya. Examining a comprehensive model of disaster-related posttraumatic stress disorder in systematically studied survivors of 10 disasters. American Journal of Public Health 102.10 (2012): 40-48. Print.
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