Mindpath Health’s Elisabeth Netherton, M.D. helps discuss the connections between exposure to hurricanes and our mental health.
According to a recent study, repeated exposure to hurricanes can have negative effects on mental health. This appears to be the case not only for direct exposure to hurricanes but for indirect and media-based exposure too—for example, a friend getting injured because of a hurricane or hearing a lot about hurricanes on the news.
Researchers working on the study, led by the University of California, found that repeated exposure to the threat of hurricanes is linked to symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, fear, and worry. They assessed Florida residents before Hurricane Irma hit in September of 2017 and then again after Hurricane Michael hit in October.
Hurricanes and Mental Health
Distress or worry is to be expected after an event like a hurricane, particularly when there are two catastrophic hurricanes in fairly quick succession, like Irma and Michael.
However, it would normally be expected that mental health would get back to its previous level over time.
Dana Rose Garfin, PhD, first author of the report and UCI Assistant Adjunct Professor of Nursing and Public Health, explained in a press release, “as climate-related catastrophic hurricanes and other natural disasters such as wildfires and heat waves escalate, this natural healing process may be disrupted by repeated threat exposure.”
Researchers found that with repeated exposure, psychological symptoms were likely to build up and get more serious. This is something that Garfin suggested may prompt a mental health crisis.
Participants undertook surveys online, and answered questions about their prior experience with hurricanes, with direct exposure defined as having lost property, lost a pet, or having been injured, and indirect exposure defined as knowing someone who had been injured or killed.
They were also asked about their engagement with hurricane-related media through TV, radio, print or online news, or social media.
The news can often be negative, whether we’re hearing about natural disasters, a global pandemic, or crime in our local area. This can affect our mental health.
For example, a study from earlier this year found that daily news exposure during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with higher worry and feelings of hopelessness. It stands to reason that hearing about hurricanes and other natural disasters often would have a similar effect.
This study was the first longitudinal study to assess participants before and after category 5 hurricanes. While more studies of this nature would be beneficial, findings were similar to those from studies conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Any traumatic event—such as a hurricane—is likely to have an impact on a person’s mental health, depending on how safe or unsafe they felt during the experience. If someone begins to suffer from PTSD symptoms, then this can have an impact on the rest of their mental well-being too—causing difficulties with anxiety and depression, for example,” says Elena Touroni, PhD, a consultant psychologist and founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.
Rising Climate Change Anxiety
Also resulting from repeated exposure to hurricanes can be increased global distress and worry about future events.
Climate change has a real impact on the mental health of many, and there’s evidence that it may also be making hurricanes stronger and more dangerous.
Another study published last year suggested that climate change will broaden the range of hurricanes and cyclones too, meaning that hurricanes could affect areas as far north as New York and Beijing.
This may explain why people become more anxious rather than simply becoming accustomed to repeated exposure to hurricanes.
It’s one of many things that can impact our mental health, and there’s a fear that even after one hurricane has come and gone, there could be another in the near future.
Or, even if it’s not going to affect us directly, we might have relatives in an area susceptible to hurricanes, or we might just be worried about climate change more generally—and it appears that there might be a gender gap here.
Elisabeth Netherton, MD, a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Mindpath Health, explains, “Climate change is contributing to increased frequency of a host of natural disasters—we watch these play out on the news or affect our own homes and communities. People experience a host of terrifying consequences of these events—loss of their homes and possessions, threats to the lives and safety of ourselves and our loved ones.
“It is important to note that because women have a much higher risk of developing depression, anxiety, and PTSD across their lifetimes, they are likely to carry a disproportionate mental health burden of these disasters. On average, women make less than men do and carry statistically lower household wealth, which means that women-led households are particularly vulnerable to struggling to meet basic needs following these disasters.”
What You Can Do
Natural disasters and extreme weather conditions like hurricanes will always exist—we can’t avoid them entirely. But there are things that people can do should they feel their mental health, or that of a friend or relative, has been affected by them.
“If people notice that their mental health is being affected by hurricanes, I think it is critical that they seek professional support through mental health treatment, such as therapy and additional sources of community support. Studies of families in the wake of prior natural disasters support the importance of community support in resilience to these forms of trauma,” says Netherton.
Of course, it can be wise to take precautions before the event if you know that there’s a hurricane coming.
Nathan Foy, founder of worldwide cyclone tracking project Force Thirteen, recommends first and foremost to “listen to official safety advice and precautions, as there is an increasing burden on the forecasting community to compete with very popular commentators who hype up the situation and cause unnecessary anxiety.”
We can’t stop hurricanes, but preparing for them beforehand and seeking help afterward if you think you need it can help your mental well-being.
To view the complete article with sources and learn more on why exposure to hurricanes may impact our mental health, click here.