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General Health : Mental Health Last Updated: Apr 20, 2011 - 9:38:09 AM

Mental illness rife among Katrina survivors, but no suicidal thoughts
By Sara Andrews
Aug 29, 2006 - 2:28:00 PM

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29 Aug, ( - The rates of serious mental illness increased sharply among the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, but suicidal thoughts did not register a corresponding rise, a new study has found. These surprising findings could be attributed to the emotional resiliency of the survivors, the study said.

In the six months after one of the deadliest hurricanes struck the US Gulf Coast, mental health problems were rife among the survivors. Although the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) increased sharply, the thoughts of suicide dropped below the rates found before the hurricane struck.

Harvard Medical School’s Ronald Kessler, PhD, and colleagues conducted the study around five to eight months after Hurricane Katrina devastated Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The study involved around 1,043 households, representing 42 percent of a larger sample.

The researchers narrowed down the study sample by analyzing the list of 1.4 million families that applied to the Red Cross for assistance. "It took us three whole months to find these people because we had to look all over God's creation," Kessler said. The group of families was named "Hurricane Katrina Community Advisory Group."

Earlier studies on Katrina survivors found a higher level of emotional stress in the survivors than the Harvard study. The researchers feel this is because the study sample was small. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had this to say of a study conducted around New Orleans seven weeks after the hurricane. "49.8% of adults exhibited levels of emotional distress indicating a potential need for mental health services."

In February another study among families still living in trailers found "clinically significant psychological stress" among adult caregivers. In order to compare the mental health status before and after the hurricane, Kessler's team took the data on 800 Gulf Coast residents surveyed in 2003.

Before Katrina, 16 percent of the people had mental health problems with 6 percent classified as seriously ill. After the hurricane, these numbers increased to 31 percent people with mental illness and 11 percent with serious mental problems.

However the suicidal though were present in just under 3 percent of the people both before and after the hurricane. But the study estimates that roughly 400,000 people in the area may have some degree of mental health problems.

Kessler said that around 30 to 50 percent of the people with serious mental illness have post-traumatic stress disorder "at their core." The rest of them have to deal with depression and anxiety, he added.

But surprisingly the disaster brought people closer to their loved ones. Around 82 percent of the study sample and 69 percent of those with mental illness said they "became closer to loved ones" after the hurricane. Additionally 75 percent and 82 percent said they "found deeper meaning in life"; and 67 percent and 73 percent said they had become "more spiritual or religious."

People showed a lot of emotional resilience in face of the hurricane. Most of them had no money, had lost all their belongings and had faced a lot of physical adversity, but still found the spirit to go on. "We found an extraordinarily high proportion of our sample who said that despite the understandable sadness with all they lost and the understandable anxiety about the uncertainties of the future," Kessler said.

"This sense of resilience, inner strength, is really just quite extraordinary."

This survey, funded partly by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, also found that seven percent of respondents reported experiencing a "seriously traumatic" event such as being rescued, a life-threatening experience or being physically or sexually assaulted.

But Kessler says that it is tough to say whether these feelings of emotional resilience will last for a long time. "After about 18 months, people start wearing out," Kessler said. "It's the psychological equivalent of a high-adrenaline phase. That's the underbelly that we're concerned about."

Right now his team is doing a six-month follow-up analysis, but plan to do the same at 12 and 18 months as well.

Hurricane Katrina was the most destructive and costliest natural disaster to occur in the United States. Almost 5 million people lived in the direct path of the hurricane and another 1.3 million lived in the New Orleans metropolitan area at the time of the hurricane. Millions lost their homes and were left financially destitute.

Reports of depression and mental illness began just weeks after the hurricane. But there was no clear demarcation in numbers available. The present report attempts to do that.

“It is important for mental health policy planners to have accurate information about the size of the problem they are trying to address among survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Our tracking surveys are designed to provide that information,” Kessler said.

© 2004-2008 by unless otherwise specified

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