What Hurricane Ian Might Mean for Your Mental Health
For a large swath of the American population, hurricane season is just another part of life during the summer and fall. But what most people don’t know is that it can affect your mental health.
We all know hurricanes and other natural disasters can put people in physical danger. But repeated exposure to hurricanes can also take a toll on mental and behavioral health.
The Link Between Natural Disasters and Mental Health
After Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Michael, social scientists linked repeated exposure to hurricanes in Florida residents with psychiatric conditions like PTSD, depression, anxiety, and general fear and worry. The severity of this issue is linked to rising anxiety around climate change as hurricanes become stronger, which exacerbates stressors as individuals have to make arrangements to stay safe.
Of course, fear and concern about staying safe before, during, and directly after any kind of natural disaster are completely natural – and beneficial – as you make arrangements to protect yourself and your family before, during, and picking up the pieces after a storm. A lot of mood- or anxiety-based mental disorders come about as the result of very real, normal stressors and emotional responses.
The problem arises when mental health doesn’t go back to its previous level over time, meaning a stressor (like a hurricane) is leaving a lasting impact and changing the way you respond to daily life challenges. Part of this could be due to hurricanes and other natural disasters becoming more frequent due to climate change. It’s hard to fully recuperate from a threat that’s ongoing.
What Hurricanes’ Toll on Mental Health Looks Like
Hurricane damage to mental health comes in many forms.
In the case of Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in 2017, heightened mortality rates extended at least 6 months after the hurricane itself. In the aftermath, many survivors experienced traumatic bereavement and prolonged grief for those they’d lost. There was also a wave of major depression among parents of children with Zika (a mosquito-borne illness that spread widely after the storm).
The mental health effects of any given natural disaster vary depending on the culture of the people affected, but here are some of the more common psychiatric problems that can arise during a hurricane:
Emerging Mental Disorders
Hurricane exposure poses a well-documented risk for new-onset major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s common for people who are predisposed to developing a mental disorder to start exhibiting symptoms during a stressful period, and a natural disaster like a hurricane creates the exact kind of environment where mental health problems can thrive.
Disrupted Care for People Already Struggling with Mental Health Conditions
Hurricanes can destroy power grids and communication networks, which halts medical care for vulnerable populations. This includes psychiatric patients who rely on uninterrupted care and steady medication schedules for their safety and well-being.
Increased Need for Medical Care Among People with Mental Illness
People taking certain psychiatric medications are also more likely to have problems with regulating their body temperature, which can exacerbate the discomfort and safety concerns if power failures cut off air conditioning and other temperature controls. This is dangerous as well as uncomfortable – power outages lead to higher rates of heat-related hospital admissions among this population.
Heightened Stressors for Recovering Addicts
Substance use tends to be tied closely to stress and unpredictable situations. People with substance use disorders may increase their intake, or relapse if they’re in recovery.
Many recovering substance users rely heavily on structure, routine, and a robust support system to curb their substance reliance. In an emergency, a lot of the support that substance users need to stay safe and sober can fall by the wayside – like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous groups, which are often held in community buildings that might be shut down or even destroyed during a hurricane.
The chaos and unpredictability surrounding a hurricane create the kind of circumstances that force people to rely on their coping mechanisms, and substance use is a type of coping mechanism (albeit a harmful one).
The Most At-Risk Groups
Of course, people living in hurricane-prone areas are most likely to face mental health complications due to hurricane exposure. But specific groups are more likely than others to encounter problems recovering from their experiences during storms.
Children and Teens
Because minors have less control over their lives than adults do, children and teenagers might feel more destabilized by an impending hurricane. Young children might struggle to understand why they have to evacuate their home or why they can’t attend the normal activities they’re used to. Teenagers might struggle with feeling isolated from their friends and teachers. They might also feel frustrated at their sense of powerlessness while adults all around them are making decisions for their safety.
After a hurricane, kids might worry that another storm will happen and what that will mean for them. They may become more dependent on caretakers than before, have trouble eating and sleeping, or show physical symptoms like stomachaches and headaches.
Senior citizens are more likely to need social support to reduce the effects of stress. They may be dealing with loss of physical capabilities or independence. They’re also less likely to be confident using the internet, which can make it difficult to access support and resources.
People with Disabilities
Storms can get in the way of getting social support or accommodations that disabled people normally rely on to live independently. Natural disasters can also exacerbate chronic conditions by piling on stress, adding to isolation, or creating issues accessing healthcare (both routine and emergency).
First Responders, Recovery Workers, and Care Workers
We rely on trained professionals to help weather the storm during hurricane season. But this kind of work can take a toll. People in helping professions faced with natural disasters can deal with prolonged separation from their loved ones, depending on the severity of the storm. Over time, they may show signs of mental fatigue and burnout.
Individuals in Other At-Risk Populations
Anyone who’s already isolated or cut off from resources is vulnerable to facing additional challenges during a hurricane. This includes people in poverty, unhoused people, etc.
While unfortunate, this certainly makes sense. A family who’s already struggling to keep food on the table or a roof over their head is more likely to face overwhelming stress if you throw a hurricane into the mix.
People Facing Indirect Exposure
Living within a storm’s path isn’t the only way someone can be affected by hurricane season. Hearing a lot about hurricanes on the news or having a loved one living in the path of a hurricane can also create stress.
Increased storm activity has been observed since the 1990s. Warmer ocean temperatures, stronger winds, and more rainfall have made hurricanes stronger and more frequent. This exacerbates wind damage and flood risk and takes a toll on ecosystems (including affecting human lives).
As storms become more severe, so do their mental health consequences. In this way, hurricanes can deal more widespread damage to minds than to bodies.
Necessary Actions to Protect Hurricane Survivors’ Well-Being and Mental Health
Community and Structural Solutions
Mental health workers can share their expertise with the government and community leaders to help their communities prepare for storms and minimize health risks – including exposure to trauma or mental suffering.
These experts can also warn people with existing mental illnesses to take precautions, including providing the resources necessary for people to stock up on medications and other accommodations.
In the aftermath of a storm, experts can also provide care to people experiencing mental health implications. In the future, more studies will be needed to document hurricanes’ mental health effects.
If you’re an individual who’s concerned about handling hurricane season for yourself or a loved one, get all the help you need – including therapy. Therapists can help you handle the emotional aspects and stressors of a storm. But they can also suggest solutions and provide some ad hoc occupational therapy by asking practical questions and helping you take precautions you might not have even considered on your own.
If you have an existing mental health condition and find yourself struggling more during hurricane season, even if you don’t think you “should” be affected by it, try to give yourself enough space to process what you’re going through.
Be gentle on yourself, and keep in mind that hurricanes’ effects on mental health can be far-reaching and long-lasting. The anniversary of a disaster or tragic event can provoke feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness, even if you’re completely physically safe and feel like you’ve moved on.
And keep in mind that trigger events can happen anytime. They can be brought on by certain smells or sounds like smoke, sirens, or other things that remind you of your past traumatic experiences. If this happens, don’t be shy about asking for help. This can come in the form of contacting a mental health helpline, asking for grace at work while you mentally recover, or asking your family and friends to take on more tasks around the house so you can take time to rest.
As climate change continues to affect more parts of our daily lives, it’s more important than ever to check in with ourselves and those around us. By tapping into the community and support available to us, we can strengthen our resilience and weather the storm together.