Contrary to the popular adage, what doesn’t kill you may not really make you stronger. Researchers from Texas A&M University found that repeated exposure to major disasters is linked to worse mental health outcomes, as opposed to better ones. The results were published in Natural Hazards.
For the study, the researchers involved subjects from around Houston, Texas, an area prone to natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, alongside industrial emergencies. Between 2000 and 2020, Texas experienced 3 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared major disasters.
To assess how residents were impacted by these events, the researchers asked 1224 residents of the Houston area to answer a 12-item health survey. From this survey, the researchers were able to assess mental and physical health over time relative to the number of natural and industrial disasters experienced.
Most respondents indicated experiencing hazardous events within the last five years. 96.35% of respondents indicated experiencing hurricanes and flooding, 96.08% industrial fires, 86.84% chemical spills, and 79.82% tornados.
The researchers found that individuals who experienced two or more such events within the last five years tended to have worse mental health than average national levels. These results remained after adjusting for demographic and socioeconomic variables.
"There is an unfortunate truth that many communities that reside along the Gulf Coast are at the nexus of exposures from natural and anthropogenic, or human-caused, hazards," said Garett Sansom, one of the study’s authors.
"Mental health is often overlooked in responding to and preparing for hazard exposures," Sansom said. "However, in order to reach community resilience efforts, mental conditions need to be accounted for,” he added.
The researchers say that their results help understand the long-term mental health impacts of environmental disasters. They add that the results also demonstrate a need for mental health interventions as a part of disaster relief programs.