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Study: Exposure to disasters can result in declining mental health

Posted at 7:40 PM, Jan 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-21 23:50:06-05

CENTRAL TEXAS — When dangerous weather becomes a threat, it's natural for people to be stressed out and afraid.

But a recent study found, repeat experiences with disasters can take a major toll on a person's well-being.

The wide range of Texas weather means there is the potential for a natural disaster to occur in any given season. Some Texans have had to live through both weather emergencies and man-made disasters -- a problem that can have a major impact on someone's mental health.

"The problem is there's not a single part of a person's life and world that isn't affected by disaster, and that isn't affected by the stress, the fear, and anxiety that come along with disaster," said Christina Gibson, team lead crisis counselor for the Heart of Texas Behavioral Health Network.

That impact was the focus of a recent study at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

Garett Sansom, research assistant professor with the school, was part of a team seeking to understand the link between exposure to disasters and mental well-being.

They found that living through a hazardous event doesn't enhance "mental toughness."

"What we're really finding is the opposite," said Sansom. "As you have more and more of these experiences, you have an increased risk of reduction in mental health."

In other words, the findings directly refute the old phrase "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Repeated exposure enhances the risk of mental health decline. The team assessed various levels of decline among the subjects in the study and computed a composite score for each person. Those who were exposed to two or more disasters within five years were more likely to experience poor mental health.

The study examined people in the Houston area, but the authors say the data is applicable to anyone who has dealt with catastrophe. Hazards were not limited to natural disasters like the weather. The study also took industrial incidents into account.

"When someone has more than one disaster, they begin to live at that heightened stress, heightened anxiety or heightened fear place, which they were never meant to live, and it was supposed to be a pass-through point," said Gibson.

In the wake of a disaster, recovery efforts often take the form of donated goods and financial assistance, but the study highlights the need to provide mental support as part of the healing process.

"Being able to provide that sort of mental health assistance at the state or national level, or even the city level, following hazard events is also really important," Sansom said.

According to Sansom, conditions like PTSD can stem from repeat experiences with catastrophes, but not everyone affected by a disaster may require long-term care.

"You don't necessarily need a mental health intake. You don't need to go to the emergency room," said Vince Erickson, director of the Texans Recovering Together crisis counseling program. "You just need some mental help and emotional support to short-term get you through these things."

The COVID-19 pandemic also qualifies as a disaster, but because the study was conducted shortly before the pandemic began, the authors weren't able to draw conclusions about the virus's impact. Those investigations will take place in the future.