November 19, 2007

Professor Kessler on NPR: Mental Illness Still on the Rise for Hurricane Katrina Survivors

Last year we reported on a study conducted by the Harvard Medical School, which found "that (among Hurricane Katrina survivors) the proportion of people with mental illnesses -- from increased anxiety to severe conditions like schizophrenia -- nearly doubled after the storm..." [Read the Story Here.]

Today, National Public Radio or NPR brought this issue of declining mental health among Katrina survivors to light again. The Bryant Park Project on NPR featured Professor Ronald C. Kessler, the study’s main investigator. Here’s a summary of some of the points he made on The Bryant Park Project today: [Listen to the Entire Recording.]

Professor Kessler’s study tracked, over time, survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The study found that unlike other disasters, survivors of Hurricane Katrina are showing a worsening in mental health as time passes. Kessler stated that this makes Katrina survivors different than survivors of other past disasters because usually, disaster survivors either improve in their mental health functioning or, in the case of severe disasters, they stay the same. Kessler stated that what perhaps makes Katrina survivors unique is that their stress factors aren’t going away. For example, he said that many Katrina survivors are not able to move on with their lives, and that "active components" in their lives such as being able to find a job or pay for electricity, are not improving. Kessler also pointed to what he called a "pile-up" of problems for Katrina survivors as a reason behind the increase in numbers of mental illness. He stated that often after a disaster, survivors suffer because of a singular missing aspect of their lives such has a lost home or loved one. Thus survivors are eventually able to move on because other aspects of their lives (like work, school, etc.) keep going. However, in the case of Hurricane Katrina survivors, a large percentage of them have lost several aspects of their lives such as a child, a spouse, their home, their job, their community, etc. This makes it much more difficult for them to move on with their lives. And perhaps, as a result of these stress factors, we’re seeing an increase in mental health problems among the survivors.

A couple of mental health statistics regarding Katrina survivors that Professor Kessler mentioned are:

  • There has been a doubling of the number of survivors who suffer from PTSD.

  • There has been a quadrupling of the number of survivors who suffer from suicidal thoughts. This is especially shocking considering that a little over a year ago, it was found that suicidal ideation was actually decreasing in Hurricane Katrina survivors.
  • When asked about preventative psychological measures that may be taken in a future disaster, Kessler responded that telepsychiatry--which is the use of modern technology to give people who survive disasters the urgent and often on-going psychological help they need--might be helpful. Kessler said that in the case of Hurricane Katrina, the number of psychiatrists have dwindled severely in New Orleans, while the number needed has quadrupled. He stated that telepsychiatry might be the answer. The idea is that mental health professionals from all over the country can provide therapy or other mental health related relief efforts through the use of technology to a specific-disaster-inflicted-area such as New Orleans, and the primary care physicians in the area can be responsible for prescribing necessary medications.

    Hurricane Katrina Advisory Group (Harvard Medical School)
    Ronald C. Kessler at Harvard Medical School
    Ronald C. Kessler on Wikipedia
    More Information on the Hurricane Katrina Study


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