New Orleans still bears the scars of Hurricane Katrina, ten years later. More than 500,000 people fled when the storm hit, and many never returned. Large swathes of the city are sparsely populated, particularly in the poor neighbourhoods that suffered the most severe flood damage.
Psychological scars linger, too. Many hurricane survivors continue to experience mental-health problems related to the storm, whether or not they returned to New Orleans, say researchers tracking Katrina’s psychological aftermath. Such work could ultimately aid people affected 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.
“There were so many ways in which common humanity was shut down by dystopian images and rumours,” says Jean Rhodes, a clinical psychologist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
Rhodes has a rare perspective on the factors that influenced mental and physical health following the storm. In 2003, she and her colleagues had begun to study whether giving college scholarships to a group of 1,019 low-income New Orleans parents would increase their well-being. Katrina halted this work, but the researchers were able to use the already-collected medical and demographic data to track changes in health caused by the hurricane. Such baseline data are rare in disaster research, and are especially valuable for studying poor communities, which tend to have high rates of stress and mental illness.
The renamed, refocused Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) Project still follows many of the original study participants. Nearly half of the 392 low-income parents participating in the revised project had symptoms of PTSD one year after the hurricane, and the rate of other serious mental illnesses such as depression and psychosis doubled to 14% (ref. 3).
But these storm survivors ultimately displayed resilience. About one-third reported ‘post-traumatic growth’: the feeling that surviving the disaster made them stronger, even if they simultaneously experienced from mental illness. Three years after the storm, the RISK team found that two-thirds of the 386 African American women who participated in the original study no longer displayed the signs of psychological distress that were evident just after Katrina hit4.
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