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How Harvey and Irma will affect mental health

When major disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit, the first priority is to keep people safe. This process can involve dramatic evacuations, rescues and searches.

However, after the initial emergency passes, a much longer process of recovering and rebuilding begins. 

For individuals, families and communities, this can last months or even years. 

This work often begins at the same time as the national media starts packing up and public attention shifts to the next major news story.

At the University of Missouri's Disaster and Community Crisis Center, we study disaster recovery, rebuilding and resilience.

Much of our research shows that natural disasters can have a meaningful impact on survivors' mental and behavioral health. 

These issues typically emerge as people try to recover and move forward after the devastation.

People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28 in Houston, Texas

People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28 in Houston, Texas

Health and disasters 

Immediately after a natural disaster, it's normal to experience fear, anxiety, sadness or shock. 

However, if these symptoms continue for weeks to months following the event, they may indicate a more serious psychological issue.

The disaster mental health problem most commonly studied by psychologists and psychiatrists is post-traumatic stress disorder, which can occur after frightening events that threaten one's own life and the lives for family and friends.

Following a disaster, people might lose their jobs or be displaced from their homes. 

This can contribute to depression, particularly as survivors attempt to cope with loss related to the disaster.

It's not easy to lose sentimental possessions or face economic uncertainties. People facing these challenges can feel hopeless or in despair.

 After Katrina, around one-third of survivors who were displaced to Texas reported increasing their tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use after the storm

Substance use can increase following disasters, but usually only for individuals who already used tobacco, alcohol or drugs before the disaster. 

In a study of Hurricane Katrina survivors who had been displaced to Houston, Texas, approximately one-third reported increasing their tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use after the storm.

There's also evidence that domestic violence increases in communities experiencing a disaster. 

After Hurricane Katrina, another study found that, among women in Mississippi who were displaced from their homes, domestic violence rates increased dramatically. 

Perpetrators may feel a loss of control following the disaster and turn

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