- Research shows that natural disasters affect mental health in the long run.
- People affected by natural calamities (like the Turkey-Syria earthquake) tend to develop mental health disorders like PTSD and depression.
Natural Disasters And Mental Health
A natural disaster is popularly defined as a sudden ecological phenomenon or a large-scale adverse event resulting from the Earth’s natural processes. It is often associated with death, trauma, and the destruction of property.
In recent times, natural disasters like earthquakes, forest fires, flash floods, and tornadoes have increased in frequency, thanks to factors like global warming and the climate change crisis.
Many places in the world, like the Philippines, Australia, Puerto Rico, Japan, and the Turkish-Syrian border, have suffered a magnitude of damage to life and property and are in the process of experiencing a mental health crisis.
What Mental Health Problems Can Occur After A Disaster?
Research over the years has affirmed the long-term emotional effects of disasters. People who have gone through a negative life experience like a natural calamity are prone to developing mental health conditions like:
- Stress disorders like Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Major depressive disorder (MDD)
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Substance use disorder (SUD)
- Personality disorders
- Reduced life satisfaction
- Disillusionment with life and extreme negativity
Why Do Natural Disasters Affect Mental Health?
The negative relationship between natural disasters and mental health can be attributed to a number of factors like:
- Survivor’s guilt
- Immense financial losses
- Fear of losing control over one’s life
- Negative conditions like poverty, food shortage, homelessness, etc.
Natural disasters can also aggravate existing mental health conditions, especially in children and the elderly. For example, the Turkey-Syria earthquake greatly affected the refugees in the Turkish-Syria borderlands, who already had high scores of displacement trauma and PTSD.
Experts suggest that the earthquake enhanced a crisis of self-hood and identity marked by trauma, panic disorders, and nightmare disorder.
Inadequate Mental Coping Strategies In Disaster
Navigating mental health disasters is a costly affair. Management of such disasters often prioritizes physical health and security over mental health struggles.
Because of this, there is a lack of psychiatric infrastructure in areas hit by natural disasters, even though the mental health consequences of natural calamities are unmitigated and debilitating in the long run.
Untreated mental health disorders can hamper a person’s social relationships and prospects in life. Therefore, a timely diagnosis of such symptoms is necessary.
For many, even a brief validation of negative emotions through therapy can go a long way in offering a sense of justification, thereby equipping them well to handle their overwhelming distress better.
Dr. Rania Awaad, a clinical psychiatrist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, elaborating on the Turkish-Syrian survivors’ mental health post-earthquake, said: “What happens is the trauma will live right under the surface. And so a person goes on in their life thinking ‘ok I’m over this’ … and then later on in life, something will trigger their memory and it will cause trauma. This is why we say the longer you take to treat something, the longer it’s going to take to treat it.”
Addressing The Mental Health Consequences Of Disasters
Mental health conditions triggered by natural disasters can be addressed with evidence-based mental health interventions customized according to the cultural context of the calamity and the needs of the community affected.
These should serve to enhance a sense of safety and optimism, as well as serve to promote social connectedness for those who are impacted.