SAN FRANCISCO — With changing climates and worsening extreme weather, the mental health of those affected by storms may suffer greatly, researchers reported here.
In an analysis of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, survivors of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria faced increased risk for psychopathologies due to the stress and losses resulting from the storms, said co-study authors Zelde Espinel, MD, MA, MPH, and James Shultz, PhD, MS, both of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
These psychopathologies included storm-associated PTSD, depression, and anxiety, they reported at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
Indeed, another study found that 66% of people in Punto Santiago, Puerto Rico, affected by Hurricane Maria have reported significant symptoms of generalized anxiety, depression, and/or PTSD.
“We know from studies of major storms in the past, like Katrina and Sandy, that people who directly experience hurricane winds, storm surge, and life-threatening flooding are at high risk for developing PTSD — ‘a disorder of exposure,'” Espinel explained to MedPage Today, highlighting that it’s already known that “people who experience major losses in a hurricane like the loss of a home and possessions or the loss of employment are at high risk for depression, anxiety, and increased alcohol use.”
“This goes for people whose lives are changed in major ways, like those who are displaced and living in FEMA trailers or other temporary facilities for long periods. Once again, they are at risk for depression and anxiety and maybe, PTSD,” she said.
The researchers identified several factors associated with hurricanes that were tied to a higher risk for psychopathology in individuals, all of which were present in the 2017 storm season. Some of these risk factors included:
- Minimal warning period
- No evacuation options
- Prolonged power outages
- Personal losses
- Deaths of others
Indeed, the mental health impact associated with these severe storms is only expected to worsen along with climate change, as was also seen with the 2017 storm season, the researchers said.
“Climate change is changing the behavior of hurricanes,” Espinel said, adding that “atmospheric scientists have found that what they call ‘climate drivers’ — like unusually warm ocean temperatures and sea level rise — are changing the behavior of storms.”
The researchers said that storms are expected to become stronger, longer, slower, and wetter, leading to more serious consequences for the mental health of those in their paths. Paired with barriers to accessible healthcare immediately following these storms, Espinel and Shultz recommended healthcare providers place a focus on prevention strategies, particularly for at-risk individuals who may be impacted by such extreme weather.
“Psychiatrists need to anticipate that future storm seasons, fueled by climate change, will cause more physical harm and psychological distress and disorders,” Espinel stated, recommending that “psychiatrists need to take special care of patients with pre-existing mental illness to educate them and their caregivers to make sure that they take precautions prior to the storms and also that they maintain their treatment.”
“Psychiatrists need to be prepared for substantial numbers of patients with new-onset mental disorders due to exposure to these strong storms,” she said.
Espinel and Shultz reported no conflicts of interest.