The effects of stress on health are well understood, with common dangers including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Nonetheless, how environmental disasters contribute to stress levels is an area still being explored.
In an article by The Union of Concerned Scientists, it noted that the physical toll from climate catastrophes is often far less than the psychological toll. They noted that “people coping with severe weather conditions can experience serious mental health symptoms, including post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.”
This is not surprising.
When people lose their homes, businesses and possessions or potentially witness the loss of life, the resulting impact on the psyche is likely to be traumatic.
Psychologist Carl F. Weems noted that “the more severe and intense your exposure to traumatic experiences during a disaster, the more likely that you will have severe mental health symptoms.”
He also concluded that the closer you are to the centre of the event, the further the distance to evacuation and the greater the devastation, the worse for your mental health. Research suggests that between 25 and 50 per cent of people experiencing weather disasters may suffer from mental health effects.
Studies on the impact of Hurricane Katrina, for example, found no fall in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms after two years.
This conclusion is supported by a 2019 paper that found that exposure to disaster experiences is a contributor to post-disaster mental health for those living in the Gulf Coast region of the United States — an area frequently exposed to hurricanes.
Such results, therefore, pose suggestions for potential policy changes. Given the strain on mental health of environmental disasters, post-disaster counselling for victims should be considered. Although such a programme may be expensive, it has the potential to limit further mental health illnesses further down the line.
Earlier this year, The Rockefeller Foundation released a report on the link between flooding and mental health.
They found that a multitude of confounding factors contributed to the extent of mental health disorders in the wake of extreme weather, these included levels of preparedness, community support and degree of exposure.
If possible, being evacuated before extreme weather in anticipation of a disaster can greatly reduce symptoms.
Moreover, to move far away from the region to avoid experiencing the full impact will help. However, this is much easier said than done. Many people are unwilling to evacuate their homes until the last minute due to fear of losing everything.
Nonetheless, storms are not the only problem. The American Psychological Association (APA) reported that survivors of human-enhanced disasters are experiencing enormous increases in depression, PTSD, anxiety and suicide.
The rise in wildfires illustrates this.
A 2007 study on psychiatric disorders suffered after the California wildfires in 2003 concluded that among respondents — those that had sought emergency relief services — to a survey three months afterwards, 33 per cent showed evidence of major depression and 24 per cent exhibited PTSD.
The 2017 California wildfires have also wreaked havoc with the psyche, with many people reporting PTSD in the months after and some even blaming the incident for triggering the reoccurrence of previous trauma.
As I write this, Hurricane Dorian has just torn through the Bahamas, flattening most of the country and leaving an unknown death toll. The mental health impact will be enormous as people try to rebuild their lives.
As the damage from environmental disasters increases year on year, “we should be devoting more resources to strengthening and spreading and evolving disaster response.”
If we don’t, we could see entire communities suffering from post-disaster trauma.