Galea finds high levels of trauma among New Orleans residents

December 06, 2007

Mood Problems Prevalent After Katrina, Survey Finds By BENEDICT CAREYThe first study to rigorously assess the mental health fallout from Hurricane Katrina has confirmed what many researchers and Gulf Coast residents predicted: that mood problems after the storm occurred about as often as in any natural disaster ever studied, and that the delayed government response almost certainly made the problem worse.The analysis, a continuing survey of more than 1,000 residents of New Orleans and surrounding areas, found that 17 percent of people in the city reported signs of serious mental illness in the month after the disaster, compared with 10 percent in surrounding areas. The estimated prevalence of such problems in the general population is 1 to 3 percent in any month. Post-traumatic stress symptoms — which include flashbacks, nightmares, a hair-trigger temper — were by far the most common type of mental problem and were often associated with incidents that happened in the storm’s wake, like property losses, robberies and assaults.Nearly half of New Orleans residents in the survey reported some significant symptoms of anxiety in that first month after the storm, about as high as can be expected in a community hit by a natural disaster, according to the study, being published today in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Women, young adults and lower-income residents were hardest hit, just as studies of previous disasters have found. Experts said the study was crucial to understanding where to direct resources after such catastrophes. The study was a joint project, financed by the National Institute of Mental Health and including researchers from seven universities. The investigators recruited 1,043 adults from New Orleans and surrounding areas that were directly affected by the hurricane. From January to March 2006, about six months after the hurricane, the surveyors asked participants 30 questions, including one open-ended query: “What would you say are currently your most serious practical problems caused by Katrina?”Based on the answers, the researchers focused on 10 common storm-related incidents, like risk of death in the storm or an assault on a loved one in the lawless limbo before some order was restored. They found that property loss affected 70 percent of New Orleans respondents and that 40 percent of the city dwellers reported other traumas, like robberies, compared with 17 percent living outside the city.Over all, New Orleans residents were nearly twice as likely as those living elsewhere to report mild or serious mental distress. The authors said they expected many of these post-traumatic effects to resolve with time; depending on how horrifying their experience, 3 to 10 percent of people will suffer symptoms for a year or longer. “The main message here is that the primary drivers of mental health risk were social and financial circumstances,” said Dr. Sandro Galea, an associate professor at the University of Michigan and the study’s lead author. “So if we’re intent on minimizing psychopathology, it means mitigating those stressors quickly” by restoring order and helping people back on their feet financially.

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