Disasters like catastrophic hurricanes can take as much of a toll on mental health as physical

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, AccuWeather staff writer
September 20, 2017, 9:50:47 AM EDT


Like the hurricanes themselves, news of Irma and Harvey has been impossible to escape in recent weeks. As the death and financial tolls continue to climb, at least 140 people were killed during and after the two major hurricanes.

The estimated damage from each storm is in the hundreds of billions. Entire communities lay destroyed. Some families lost everything- their homes, their cars and, for some, even their loved ones.

Financial and physical tolls on people can be measured, but what about the mental and emotional toll?

“[The loss from these storms] is a stressful and potentially traumatic experience,” said Susan Clayton, psychology chair at the College of Wooster. “People who have lost jobs, homes, valued possessions, loved ones, or pets may feel that some of the core aspects of their identities, the things that define them, are missing.

Clayton was part a team that looked into the effects climate change is having on mental health. Researchers found that severe weather disasters can leave people suffering from trauma and shock due to experiences like physical injury or losing a loved one. In some cases, once the trauma or shock subside, victims are left with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Residents are evacuated from their homes surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston, Texas.


Other studies in the past have looked at the relationship between PTSD and natural disasters. One surveyed low-income mothers who survived Hurricane Katrina, finding that victims are at a greater risk for post-traumatic stress even years afterward. Similar results were found studying victims after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Clayton said as many as 40 percent of victims can also experience other mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Changes in social behavior are also possible, like increased aggression and domestic violence.

“The important thing to stress is that people respond to loss differently, depending on what other stressors they have experienced and their sources of support,” said Clayton.

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However, there can be positive responses through the community as well. Social media lit up during the storms with neighbors helping neighbors; people connected with others online to provide food, shelter or just to lend a helping hand.

“Major storms can also evoke positive responses, as communities consider their collective well-being and join together to help those in need and to rebuild,” said Clayton.

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