A study released by researchers at Texas A&M University found that people who have experienced multiple natural and man-made disasters are more likely to have long-term problems with their mental health than the national average.
The study, from A&M’s School of Public Health, focused on Houston, where residents experienced 33 disasters between 2000 and 2020, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
Garett Sansom, lead author of the study and research assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at A&M’s School of Public Health, shared his findings with Texas Standard. He also explained what needs to change to help people in vulnerable areas better deal with the personal toll caused by disasters. Listen to the interview with Sansom in the audio player above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: This study takes into account something like 20 years of disasters. Can you explain the study and what you were trying to measure?
Garett Sansom: Absolutely. So it’s an unfortunate truth that most models are showing that natural and human-caused hazards are increasingly becoming commonplace throughout the nation, but particularly within coastal regions such as the greater Houston area where this study took place.
So we wanted to understand not just if there are a mental impact to having experiences with hazards, but also the depth and breadth of that mental toll. And so looking at the greater Houston area, which experiences a lot of these issues, we did see that as people began to experience one, two, three or even four or five, they had a marked decrease in their mental health moving forward.
How did the results match up to your initial thesis?
It might seem obvious to expect some level of decrease with mental health when we’re talking about people experience something as traumatic as a hurricane or a petrochemical fire. But we weren’t prepared for just how much of a decrease that we would see with this specific population.
So, in some times we’re seeing levels a whole standard deviation lower than what you’d expect at the national level or even the state level, as they have more and more of these experiences. And it really underscores the need for mental health resources for these communities post-disasters, particularly in areas where they experience multiple ones.
From those people whom you surveyed, what seemed to be the most common hazardous event experienced? What was cited most frequently?
Well, it might not be a surprise: in the Houston area, right off the Gulf Coast, flooding and hurricanes tend to be the ones that most people are experiencing often. However, the vast majority may experience those, but also human-caused hazards, again, such as chemical spills or petrochemical fires. It’s just a reality of living in that area where those sorts of incidences do occur every couple of years.
Unfortunately, as we move forward, these types of experiences are probably becoming common in many parts of the nation – if we’re talking about the Pacific Northwest with wildfires or the Northeast with frozen storms or hurricane experiences, or with major flooding and anthropogenic [or man-made] hazards in the Gulf Coast.
Hearing about this, people immediately think of the pandemic and the mental health effects that have been widely discussed. Was that a factor in this research?
Not in this particular project. The information that we collected on this study was actually done immediately prior to the pandemic, in late 2019. However, we do have information from the same region one year following it. So what we’re trying to do now is better understand the specific impact that hazards as well as the pandemic have on mental health. But for this study, no; this was done prior to the pandemic.
How can this data be used to leverage better outcomes for people living or experiencing these traumas?
I think it’s really twofold. And one of it is people at the individual or the family level or even small communities just recognizing the fact that having mental health impacts from this is normal and something that many people are experiencing. So there shouldn’t be any kind of stigma associated with reaching out and seeking care. And the other one is being able to provide these resources to these areas moving forward so that they can reach them.
There’s a few things that have already begun following the instance in Puerto Rico, where a lot of mental health professionals were provided. So this is something that I do see change on the wind. And also, as we live more and more in a remote world and online and have access to those sorts of resources, clinical and health professionals can be provided through your computer or through your phone.
And oftentimes, individuals might only need one or two conversations or sessions with somebody to kind of get back to where they need to be. But that type of resource really needs to be provided, again, whether it’s at the national, the state level, to folks in these communities so they can not only just bounce back, but perhaps, a bounce forward from where they were before and become even more resilient moving forward, as opposed to what we’ve been seeing, which is that over time they’re becoming less resilient and the impacts on their mental health is becoming more severe and more obvious.