J. Brian Houston, Jennifer M. First, University of Missouri-Columbia

When major disasters hit, the first priority is to keep people safe. This process can involve dramatic evacuations, rescues and searches.

However, after the initial emergency passes, a much longer process of recovering and rebuilding begins. For individuals, families and communities, this can last months or even years.

At the University of Missouri’s Disaster and Community Crisis Center, much of our research into disaster recovery, rebuilding and resilience shows that natural disasters can have a meaningful impact on survivors’ mental and behavioral health. These issues typically emerge as people try to recover and move forward after the devastation.

Immediately after a natural disaster, it’s normal to experience fear, anxiety, sadness or shock. However, if these symptoms continue for weeks to months following the event, they may indicate a more serious psychological issue.

The disaster mental health problem most commonly studied by psychologists and psychiatrists is post-traumatic stress disorder, which can occur after frightening events that threaten one’s own life and the lives for family and friends.

Following a disaster, people might lose their jobs or be displaced from their homes. This can contribute to depression, particularly as survivors attempt to cope with loss related to the disaster.

Substance use can increase following disasters, but usually only for individuals who already used tobacco, alcohol or drugs before the disaster. In a study of Hurricane Katrina survivors who had been displaced to Houston, Texas, approximately one-third reported increasing their tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use after the storm.

There’s also evidence that domestic violence increases in communities experiencing a disaster. After Hurricane Katrina, another study found that, among women in Mississippi who were displaced from their homes, domestic violence rates increased dramatically. Perpetrators may feel a loss of control following the disaster and turn to abusive behavior to try to gain that control back in their personal relationships.

Disaster recovery

While many disaster survivors show resilience, studies have shown mental and behavioral health issues cropping up weeks, months and even years after a disaster.

Rebuilding can be a long process, with a series of ups and downs. Survivors may bounce back after a few months, or they may experience ongoing stressors, such as financial issues or problems finding permanent housing.

In addition, early disaster recovery efforts often focus on physical reconstruction. Psychological recovery may end up on the back burner.

Individuals and organizations working to help disaster survivors need to remember that disasters can affect many aspects of survivors’ lives. As a result, several different community systems need to be working together as part of recovery efforts.

Researchers sometimes call the multi-agency disaster response and recovery network that is needed to help individuals cope with a disaster a “system of care.” A disaster system of care will include disaster groups like FEMA and Red Cross. It should also involve agencies representing public health, mental health, schools, local government, social services, local businesses and workforce development, faith-based organizations and local media.

For example, combating domestic violence after a disaster will require collaboration among disaster organizations, domestic violence groups, law enforcement, local media and more. Resources intended to help women and families experiencing domestic violence – such as legal aid or transportation assistance – should be included in disaster response programs.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

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