Hurricane Katrina Survivors Suffer Lasting Mental Health Effects

Carolyn Drake

According to a new study of mothers in the New Orleans area, survivors of Hurricane Katrina have suffered from poor mental health for years after the storm, including many who suffer from post-traumatic stress symptoms and psychological distress.

According to a new study of mothers in the New Orleans area, survivors of Hurricane Katrina have suffered from poor mental health for years after the storm, including many who suffer from post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) and psychological distress (PD).

The researchers conducted longitudinal surveys with 532 low-income mothers from New Orleans. The participants were first surveyed roughly one year prior to Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in August 2005, and then again 7—19 months and 43–54 months after the storm.

"I realized right away that the kinds of information we had on mental and physical health were very rare in disaster studies," study co-author Mary Waters, PhD, professor of sociology at Harvard University, said in a press release. "Researchers never know if people are suffering because of the disaster or if they had underlying conditions that would have led to depression or poor health even before the disaster hit."

The surveys questioned the participants on their mental health, social support networks, earning power, and experience during and after the hurricane. Using the Impact of Event Scale-Revised and the K6 scale to measure the participants’ levels of PTSS and PD, respectively, the researchers found that, 43—54 months after the hurricane, 33% of the women surveyed still had PTSS and 30% still had PD. The levels for both conditions declined during the first 11 months following the hurricane, but they did not return to pre-hurricane levels.

The researchers noted that stressors experienced by study participants during and after the storm—home damage, traumatic experiences, death of a friend or relative, and lack of food, water, or medical care—played a large role in determining whether the participants suffered from PD, PTSS, or both.

Long-term PTSS was associated with hurricane stressors, particularly home damage. However, the majority of hurricane stressors were not correlated strongly with PD alone over the short or long run. Higher earnings were found to be protective against PD, and greater social support was protective against PTSS.

“These results indicate that mental health problems, particularly PTSS alone or in co-occurrence with PD, among Hurricane Katrina survivors remain a concern, especially for those who experienced hurricane-related trauma and had poor mental health or low socioeconomic status before the hurricane,” the researchers write in a study abstract.

The study appears in the January issue of Social Science & Medicine.