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Increasingly violent storms may strain mental health



– Longer and more powerful storms caused by climate change will put increasing pressure on mental health care. The unusually powerful 2017 hurricane season, highlighted by damage done to Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria and to Houston by Hurricane Harvey, may serve as a harbinger of more intense storm seasons to come, according to James M. Shultz, PhD, director of the Center for Disaster and Extreme Event Preparedness at the University of Miami.

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Overall, 2017 was something of a “perfect storm” season. “We’ve had predictions about what climate change would do to extreme storms. It was quite exceptional in bringing together all of the elements we have seen predicted by climate scientists,” Dr. Shultz said during a press conference at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Study coauthor Zelde Espinel, MD, MPH, also of the center at the university, presented the poster at the meeting.

Aside from greater intensity, climate change is causing a slowing of storms once they make landfall, which increases rainfall and the risks of floods. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, where tens of thousands of spontaneous rescue efforts arose to rescue people trapped in their homes.

These storms put tremendous pressure on health care systems, as in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria knocked out electrical grids, some of which stayed down for 6 months or more. This kind of upheaval interrupts health care infrastructure, including psychiatric services, leaving vulnerable individuals at even greater risk.

Then there are the direct and indirect effects of storms on mental health. When air conditioning and fans are inoperative because of power outages, people get exposed to extreme and relentless heat. They may experience food and water shortages. In worst cases, they may be forced out of their homes on a temporary or even permanent basis. Dr. Shultz recounted research looking at victims of Hurricane Maria.

Researchers used standardized measures to assess both survivors who remained in Puerto Rico, and others who were forced to relocate, mostly to Florida. Sixty-six percent of those interviewed had clinically significant elevated symptoms of PTSD, major depression, or generalized anxiety. A study looking at people displaced from Puerto Rico and those who stayed also found high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression in both samples, and rates were actually higher in those who were displaced to Florida, Dr. Shultz said (Disaster Med Public Health Prep. 2019 Feb;13[13]:24-7).

These effects will only worsen as climate change brings more and more powerful storms, and psychiatrists must be ready to help. The year 2017 “is just a snapshot. It may in fact be just a garden variety year when we look back later in this century. We need to integrate climate science into population health preparedness,” Dr. Shultz said.

Many countries most affected by climate change are poor in resources and may have few psychiatrists available in the first place. After a storm, infrastructure and the number of trained mental health professionals may further decline. That calls for outside assistance: “We’ve been talking about the possibility of bringing interpersonal psychotherapy (to affected areas) and to have lay personnel supervised by psychiatrists be able to deliver these sorts of interventions,” he said.

Dr. Shultz has no relevant financial disclosures.

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