Harvey continues to leave behind mental trauma, report says

R. HANS MILLER | KATY TIMES SENIOR REPORTER
Posted 2/27/20

A newly-released study from Northwell Health shows what Katy residents may already know – the mental health effects of Hurricane Harvey are significant and ongoing. Mental health issues for …

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Harvey continues to leave behind mental trauma, report says

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A newly-released study from Northwell Health shows what Katy residents may already know – the mental health effects of Hurricane Harvey are significant and ongoing. Mental health issues for those who experienced the storm and its aftermath are statistically more prevalent said Dr. Rebecca Schwartz, a psychologist and Associate Professor at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health.

“The end result is that having a lot of negative impacts of a hurricane has a real impact on mental health and the particular mental health symptoms that we looked at were PTSD – posttraumatic stress disorder – depression and anxiety. We also looked at the general stress which was also something that was significant,” Schwartz said.

Participants in the study were identified and approached about five months after Harvey plowed its way through the gulf coast region surrounding Houston, Schwartz said. It examined 161 adults and their respective mental health at that time. Results varied by individual, she said, but certain factors for mental health issues were increased for all participants. General stress and the participants’ personal situation during Harvey affected their mental health outcomes, she said.

According to the study’s report, women and girls are more likely to experience mental health difficulties post-disaster. Additionally, those already under care for mental health concerns were also at increased risk of seeing worsened mental health symptoms after experiencing Harvey or a similar disaster.

Schwartz also identified another source of concern – living situations during Harvey and how flooding impacted the participants’ living situations.

“Another thing to think about is – in Houston during Harvey – there wasn’t mandatory evacuation… So, that has different, depending on whether you were forced into shelters or not, it has different [effects] and I think we learned at least in [Hurricane] Sandy – shelters, although absolutely necessary, can sometimes be retraumatizing.”

Having options other than shelters to turn to during a natural disaster can be helpful, Schwartz said. Compared with those who went to shelters, participants whose homes became dangerous or unlivable and were able to stay with friends or family experienced lessened mental health impacts in comparison with those who were forced by their situations to go to a shelter, she said.

“If somebody was fortunate enough to be able to go to a friend or family, they were at 50% decreased odds of developing PTSD as opposed to somebody who was forced to go to a shelter,” Schwartz said.

Other situations examined by the study included transportation issues associated with fuel shortages or loss of a vehicle, assisting neighbors through rescue or other issues, availability of food during the disaster and unemployment resulting from Harvey, according to the report.

Additional factors such as level of income and education contributed to whether participants were able to work around the situations posed to them by the natural disaster, Schwartz said. Those with lower incomes and lower education often did not have the resources to address the challenges posed by a natural disaster, she said.

To better prepare themselves for natural disasters, Schwartz and her research team – who are also working with the Houston Department of Public Health – recommended that municipalities in disaster-prone areas like the gulf coast, including Katy, Fulshear, Brookshire and Pattison, focus on having mental health care available as part of their planning for crises. Doing so can help residents recover more quickly and minimize the impact of mental health concerns for residents.

The report also recommends that public health officials in affected municipalities plan for long-term mental health care as part of their disaster preparedness plans.

Schwartz said she also recommends residents prepare more for the mental health impact of a hurricane as part of their general preparation. This can include talking to mental health professionals to have a plan of action in place for ongoing care if the person is already being treated for a mental health condition, but also includes simple things like ensuring extra medication is available, identifying a friend or relative ahead of time to stay with in the event of an emergency and having a plan to manage transportation during and after a natural disaster, she said.

Schwartz encouraged area residents to seek mental health without being ashamed to do so, whether a natural disaster is happening or not. She also said to keep an eye out for mental health issues that may still continue to crop up even years after Harvey.

“It is not atypical of starting to see symptoms of PTSD weeks, months and even years after a hurricane. It’s not uncommon and you should attend to those,” Schwartz said.

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