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Is there a link between natural disasters and mental health? Experts decode

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a natural disaster as a “sudden ecological phenomenon of sufficient magnitude to require outside assistance”.

“Natural disasters are traumatic life events, and therefore extremely overwhelming,” said Tanushri Baikar Talekar, a clinical psychologist at Masina Hospital. “These are large-scale and often unexpected,” she added.

By exploring the nature of such disasters, a June 2022 study by the University of California, Irvine focused on indirect, direct, and media exposure to hurricanes Irma and Michael, which hit the United States in 2017 and 2018 respectively. It revealed that symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTSD), depression and anxiety were identified, as well as persistent general fear and worry in the study population. He further indicated a link between natural disasters and adverse psychological problems, raising concerns about the impact of climatic events on mental health.

“Most people recover and show resilience over time. However, as catastrophic climate-related hurricanes and other natural disasters such as wildfires and heat waves intensify, this natural healing process can be disrupted by repeated exposure to threats,” noted Dana Rose Garfin of the University of California, Irvine, and the study’s first author.

Thus, following recent natural disasters such as floods (in Assam, more than 45 lakh people affected), earthquakes (in Afghanistan, more than 1,000 deaths), cyclones (in the Sunderbans and surrounding areas), heat waves in Iran, Spain and parts of the United States, experts are elucidating the link between natural calamities and mental health, and what to do about it.

Heatwaves are rampant across all regions (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) 2011 review titled Disasters and their consequences for public health, “disasters have a direct impact on the health of the population, resulting in physical trauma, acute illness and emotional trauma. In addition, disasters can increase morbidity and mortality associated with chronic diseases and infectious diseases due to their impact on the health care system”.

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Notably, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) states that since “disasters do not affect uniformly” with their different effects from person to person and region to region, even in Under normal circumstances, groups vulnerable due to their and social limitations do not receive adequate help and support and are “prone to physical and psychological hardship”.

Loss of resources, loss of daily routine, lack of control over own possessions and loss of social support have been associated with high levels of acute psychological distress, a 2019 NCBI literature review noted.

Why are natural disasters a concern?

NCBI research also indicates that mental health issues, in general, have been seen as a neglected topic, especially in India, given the stigma attached to it. Mental health issues caused by disasters are even more neglected, he says. Thus, in order to fill this gap, there is a need to better understand disasters and mental health. Agrees with Dr Dipti Reddy Nallu MD, Psychiatrist, Citizens Specialty Hospital and said: “The loss of social and economic resources is recognized by disaster survivors and the community, but recognition of psychological suffering is generally stigmatized or overlooked by most.”

children In psychological terms, such calamities can affect people in the short and long term (representative) (Source: Pixabay)

From a 2020 book Public health and disasters: health emergency and disaster risk management in Asiathe 1999 super cyclone Odisha, which affected more than 10,000 people, triggered several studies on mental health vulnerability (Kar et al., 2004) and PTSD (Sharan et al., 1996, Kar et al., 2007). The Indian Ocean tsunami (2004) that killed 10,000 people in India and rendered many homeless sparked new research on adult mental health and psychosocial care (Becker, 2007, Sharan et al., 1996) and women (Becker, 2009) disaster survivors.

The scale of psychological trauma and subsequent experiences from disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis can be severe for the majority of the population, state disaster management guidelines. Psychosocial support and mental health services in disasters. “The greater the trauma, the greater the psychological distress and social handicap,” he says.

Not only that, NCBI also notes how various studies have explained, for example, the effects of flooding on physical and psychological health. During and after the floods, people suffering from physical health effects such as colds, coughs, flu, sore throats or throat infections and headaches, skin rashes, gastrointestinal illnesses intestinal diseases, lung diseases, high blood pressure, asthma also experience psychological stress, he notes.

In situations where support systems are also compromised, the impact can be more long-lasting and devastating, said psychologist Kamna Chhibber. “People are known to develop mental health related illnesses such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, insomnia, to name a few due to exposure to such events” , said Chhibber.

In psychological terms, such calamities can affect people in the short and long term. Agreeing with Chhibber, Talekar explained that the psychological toll can “linger for years.” “Survivors go through intense emotions such as shock, pain, confusion and disbelief,” Talekar added.

earthquake A file photo from Mizoram (Express Archives)

It can also precipitate substance dependence and coping issues that affect the proper functioning of the individual as well as the community, leading to family conflict, according to the NCBI.

What can be done?

The first would always be medical help at the earliest and the provision of realistic solutions to deal with it. “It would be practical things related to where people need to go, access to medical services, food, housing, etc. The availability of information is crucial to ensure that panic does not set in and people feel calm. , in a collected way that would ensure their safety and security,” Chhibber explained.

According NDMAIndia’s disaster mental health response has “evolved from identifying and treating individual psychiatric cases to building the coping skills of survivors in a community (Kishore Kumar et al., 2000)“. The National Mental Health Program (NMHP) includes strategies for Psychosocial care and mental health services during disasters (PSMHS). Accepting the psychological impact of a natural disaster is the first step towards coping strategies, said Dr Reddy Nallu.

The NDMA guidelines also aim to improve the coping capacities of affected communities by providing them with appropriate support to rebuild their lives. Service networks consist of psychiatric units in tertiary health care and educational institutions, clinical psychologists, social workers, NGOs, allied health professionals, community workers and volunteers.

Chhibber said providing “real-time, practical solutions to problems faced can help build hope and resilience and support adaptation.”

“Being reassured by the presence of other supportive people can greatly help individuals. Continuing to encourage individuals to discuss their experiences is an imperative that empowers them to be able to share, express and step back,” she said.

Psychiatrist Dr. Samir Parekh agreed. He said that rather than bottling up feelings, it can help when trying to share experiences with people who may have the same or similar experience. “Individual, group or/and medication counseling as well as progressive social interactions can help cope with traumatic events,” he explained.

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