Studies Find that Hurricane Katrina Survivors Suffer From PTSD, Other Mental Health Challenges

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Eric Gay/AP
Eric Gay/AP

Hurricane Katrina destroyed property, claimed lives and forced over half a million residents to flee. An estimated 100,000 Black people have not returned home to New Orleans. The residents of New Orleans not only had to deal with the daily impact of racism, but also the aftermath of a horrific storm that was, in turn, exacerbated by that racism.

A series of studies by the journal, Nature, is examining the psychological and emotional toll of Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster, but a human catastrophe.

Researchers found a mixture of both trauma and mental health issues, as well as resilience and growth in the face of adverse situations.

There are psychological scars among the Katrina survivors who continue to experience mental health problems, whether or not they returned home after the storm. The studies could aid people impacted by future disasters “by identifying factors — such as lack of a social-support network and unstable environments for children — that seem to increase risk of mental-health trauma,” as was written in Nature.

One of the studies of areas impacted in the Gulf Coast suggested that mental health conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) exacerbated over time. The prevalence of PTSD in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama where the storm hit increased from 15 percent a few months after the storm to 21 percent one year later. Further, the proportion of people with suicidal thoughts jumped from 2.8 percent to 6.4 percent, reflecting the challenges survivors faced coping with loss or trying to meet basic survival needs such as food, water, housing and medical care.

In another study, nearly half of 392 low-income parents had PTSD one year after the hurricane, and the rate of psychosis, depression and other serious mental illness doubled to 14 percent.

“There was a level of uncertainty about whether or not recovery would be possible that I don’t think has been encountered before in the United States,” Elizabeth Fussell, a demographer who was working at Tulane University during Katrina, told Nature.

“There were so many ways in which common humanity was shut down by dystopian images and rumors,” said Jean Rhodes, a clinical psychologist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

For example, residents watched corpses float by, police with shotguns prevented evacuees from escaping the city over a bridge, and families were separated as people were placed in temporary shelters.

However, there were also signs of resilience, as one-third of people experienced “post-traumatic growth,” a sense the disaster made them feel stronger even as they experienced mental illness. Three years after the storm, two-thirds of the 386 Black women who participated in the original study no longer had signs of psychological distress that were present immediately after Katrina landed. Factors which aided in the post-traumatic growth of survivors included support systems, friends and family, mental health services and health providers. Many survivors, however, did not experience resilience or growth.

Racism is not merely a matter of calling people offensive names. Rather, it is a system of oppression that takes a real toll on the mental and physical health of its victims.

As Think Progress reported, according to a 2014 study, Black teens who experience racial discrimination are more likely to develop stress-related health problems that give them a greater risk for chronic disease as adults. Specifically, racism triggers stress-related responses, leading to high blood pressure, changes in stress hormone levels, and a higher body mass index. Racism-related stress has been shown to alter the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in African-American and Latino children, raising red flags, as such hormones regulate the body’s immune, reproductive and cardiovascular systems.

As was reported in The Atlantic in 2013, a growing number of studies on the links between racism and emotional and physical conditions has forced society to consider “embodied inequality,” the health consequences of discrimination. Racism creates a vicious cycle, as disadvantaged people are more susceptible to stress from racism, yet are less likely to have the resources to address the stress which damages their health. Further, the fear of racism is enough to trigger the body’s stress-response mechanisms.

According to the American Psychological Association, in one 2008 study, “Race-related stress was a significantly more powerful risk factor than stressful life events for psychological distress,’ also noting that “psychological resources had a significant direct effect in minimizing psychological distress, and social resources had a significant stress-suppressing effect on race-related stress.”

Moreover, the trauma of racism is intergenerational and hereditary, literally passed on through the DNA. Epigenetic inheritance is the notion that stress, diet and other environmental factors can affect the genetic makeup of subsequent generations. Scientific American wrote that descendants of Holocaust survivors are more prone to developing PTSD, hypertension and obesity. The children of these people who experienced trauma had an alteration of the gene that releases stress hormones. While trauma victims had a lower than normal level of cortisol, the hormone which helps the body cope with stress, children had higher than normal levels.

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