Hurricanes and Mental Health

Research shows that mental illnesses are common in the United States, with nearly one in five adults living with a mental illness. Extreme weather events can impacts mental health in several ways, both in immediate anxiety-related responses, as well as chronic mental health disorders. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD; a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically occurring in the winter months) leads to insomnia, anxiety, and agitation. Flooding and prolonged droughts have been associated with with elevated levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). Tropical cyclones are no exception and can wreak havoc beyond the images of flattened buildings, uprooted trees, and flooded streets that take over news coverage.

A home in Gulfport, Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. Courtesy NWS New Orleans/Baton Rouge.

Several studies have looked into the effects of tropical cyclones on mental health, such as this one and this one, authored by Dr. Zelde Espinel (a board certified psychiatrist) and co-authored by several other medical professionals, as well as meteorologist Dr. James P Kossin (an Atmospheric Research Scientist with NCEI). Interdisciplinary work like this is so important across all fields, and health care is no exception. These articles shed light on the mental illness that follows tropical storms, as well as proactive suggestions that can help communities prepare.

Both articles discuss how increased storm activity has increased since the 1990s (which was also discussed in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in 2018) due to warming ocean temperatures, which have in turn contributed to tropical storms that have stronger winds, increased rainfall, and more of a tendency to stall over land (hi Harvey…and Florence…and Dorian). Michael Mann, a climate scientist and director of Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center, noted “It is no coincidence that the strongest storms on record globally, in both hemispheres … have all happened during the last few years when global sea surface temperatures have been at record levels,” in this article. As the storms grow more severe, so does the mental health toll. Espinel argues that storms cause more widespread damage to minds than to bodies.

A home in Pascagoula, Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. Courtesy NWS New Orleans/Baton Rouge.

Tropical storms inflect emotional health in many ways. When power grids and communication networks are destroyed, this makes it difficult to near-impossible for vulnerable populations to access medical care – including psychiatric patients who rely on uninterrupted care and steady medication schedules. Additionally, patients that take certain medications prescribed for mental health are more likely to have difficulty maintaining their core body temperature, a situation that becomes particularly dangerous when power failures cut off air conditioning and other cooling technologies. Thus, power outages lead to higher rates of heat-related hospital visits. Additionally, hurricanes are also known to cause major depression, generalized anxiety order, and PTSD.

Threats to mental and physical health go hand in hand. For example, when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, high mortality rates were reported for at least six months in the aftermath of the storm, leading to mental disorders including traumatic bereavement and prolonged grief among survivors. Additionally, the Zika virus (a mosquito-borne illness) spread widely after the storm and led to increased major depression as parents dealt with their children contracting it. There was a study of Puerto Rican citizens who relocated to Florida after Maria; two-thirds showed symptoms of PTSD, and half showed signs of major depression.

Flooding in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Courtesy NWS San Juan

So, what can mental health workers do to help those that are suffering and try to prevent further suffering? According to the articles shared above, the first step is to share their expertise with government and community leaders. This will help communities prepare for storms and minimize overall health risks, including the public’s exposure to trauma. When tropical storms are approaching, health care workers can warn patients with current mental illness to take protective actions. During and after the tropical storm, they can provide care to those people whose mental health has been affected, and also lead studies to document the mental health effects of the storm.

This article was inspired by a recent article shared by NOAA.

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