Feinstein researchers eye chronic post-storm despair

Rather depressing: Port Arthur, Texas, was among the Lone Star State locales inundated by 2017's Hurricane Harvey.

A team of Feinstein Institute for Medical Research investigators is digging deep into the mental toll natural disasters take on survivors.

The team – led by Rebecca Schwartz, an associate investigator at the Manhasset-based Feinstein Institute, R&D division of the Northwell Health system – presented its findings during a roundtable discussion at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting, held this week in California.

According to the research, exposure to natural disasters such as 2017’s Hurricane Harvey are associated with sharply increased levels of stress and anxiety – post-trauma data that investigators believe can help mitigate the mental-health impacts of future storms.

For instance, the findings may help local officials and relief organizations better prepare to offer adequate mental-health services when the next disaster is bearing down.

Citing previous research showing the profound emotional impact hurricanes can have on storm victims, Schwartz and her team traveled to Houston to meet with survivors of Hurricane Harvey and assess their mental health needs. The storm made landfall in Texas in August 2017, causing 102 deaths, displacing some 30,000 residents (in Texas alone) and otherwise crippling Houston, the fourth-most-populated U.S. city (roughly 2.3 million residents).

Rebecca Schwartz: Storm warning.

Specifically, Schwartz et al assessed the survivors’ “hurricane exposure,” a broad look at the hurricane-related issues community members faced in the storm’s aftermath. Post-storm problems ranged from power outages and difficult work commutes to personal injuries and the deaths of friends or family members, according to the Feinstein Institute.

The higher the hurricane exposure – that is, the more difficulties individuals faced in coping with the storm and its effects – the higher the resulting stress levels.

Schwartz will continue analyzing the Hurricane Harvey data to explore correlations with cases of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, furthering medical science’s ability to better deal with the emotional ramifications of deadly weather events and other disasters.

“By anticipating the mental health needs of those affected by the storm, we can develop an outreach plan to help individuals alleviate this stress – and potentially prevent mental health difficulties if faced with future storms or other types of natural disasters,” Schwartz said.