Mental Health Woes Rise in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina
> 11/9/2007 12:07:43 PM

The impact of Hurricane Katrina can still be felt today and may actually be worsening over time. In the years following a disaster, the incidence of disaster-related mental illness normally decreases, but the presence of mental illness in the areas of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi ravaged by Hurricane Katrina continues to increase two years later.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School collected information the Hurricane Katrina Community Advisory Group, a representative sample of hurricane victims whose responses to surveys will provide ongoing information about the effects of the Hurricane Katrina, America’s costliest natural disaster and its deadliest hurricane in 70 years. The advisory group was first surveyed between January and March of 2006, and these results serve as a baseline measurement for the state of survivors' mental health post-Katrina. Most participants, over 84%, suffered a significant loss of finances, income, or housing, over 36% dealt with severe physical difficulties, such as lacking food or lacking a place to sleep safely, and over 22% grappled with severe psychological difficulties, such as being threatened with physical violence or living without privacy. The presence of anxiety and mood disorders was twice the rate that had been reported three years earlier in an unrelated survey of the area. Socio-demographic factors like age and income could not be used to predict the presence of mental disorders, which indicates that mental health problems were distributed equally across the affected area.
A follow-up survey, conducted a year after the first and released on October 31st, has highlighted the severity of Hurricane Katrina's lasting effects. Past experiences have shown that two years after a disaster, most disaster-related cases of mental illness will have resolved. The presence of anxiety and mood disorders in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, however, has not changed significantly, increasing from 30.7% to 33.9%. The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder has increased twofold in areas directly affected by the hurricane, and 70.4% of those who met the criteria for PTSD during the initial survey still met the criteria during the follow-up. Additionally, the rate of suicidal ideation increased from 2.8% in 2006 to 6.4% in 2007.

The survivors of Hurricane Katrina still struggle with problems and stresses that first began over two years ago, and these surveys clearly illustrate that we need to offer increased assistance to the 6 million people affected by the hurricane, both those living in the affected areas and those who have moved away. If we do not respond to these troubling trends, the mental health of hurricane survivors may worsen even further.

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