Hurricanes, tornadoes and other major disasters can cause more damage than devastation to property, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that the severe emotional distress and anxiety for those who have lived through major disasters can also lead to suicide.
The authors examined 281 natural disasters during a 12-year period and their impact on suicide rates in those communities.
They looked at disaster declaration data and found suicide rates increased by 23% when compared to rates before and after the disaster. Suicide rates increased for all types of disasters, with the largest overall increase occurring two years after a disaster.
"That finding is important, I think, because those could be preventable deaths with better disaster preparedness and response," said study author Jennifer Horney, founding director of the epidemiology program in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Delaware.
"It's particularly important to consider the risk of suicide, since those with more existing social vulnerabilities live in areas with a greater risk of being damaged by disaster," she said in a university news release.
Counties that had a single disaster declaration and not multiple disasters were examined in the study. The data probably underestimate the association between disaster exposure and suicide because "there are a lot of additional mental health impacts from repetitive loss," Horney said.
The study included counties in the continental United States with a one disaster between 2003 and 2015, based on Federal Emergency Management Agency data. Suicide rates were estimated for three 12-month periods before and after the disaster. Storms, floods and hurricanes occurred frequently enough to be included in the study.
The suicide rate increased in both the first and second year following a severe storm, flooding or ice storm, then declined by the third year for all disaster types, according to the study. Suicide rates in flooded areas increased by nearly 18% the first year and 61% the second year. In areas that experienced a hurricane, suicide rates rose 26% in the first year then returned to the baseline in the second year.
"Counties impacted by hurricanes saw the biggest increase in the rate of suicide in the first year, which makes sense because it's the most widespread type of disaster among those we examined," Horney said.
More mental health resources should be made available to address challenges that arise after a disaster, Horney said, and they should be extended for a longer period of time after a disaster.
"The goal cannot be to recover to the pre-disaster status quo. We want those impacted by disasters to recover and be more resilient to the mental health impacts of disasters than they were before," she said.
The article was published recently in The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention.
Find help at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
SOURCE: University of Delaware, news release, Nov. 6, 2020