According to a study published in the journal Natural Hazards, people who have been repeatedly exposed to major disasters have lower mental health scores compared with those who have not.

Garett Sansom, DrPH, a research assistant professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas said that the study found that as people experienced more hazards, especially over the course of 5 or 10 years, their mental health tends to decrease over time.

The majority of the 1,094 participants of the study reported experiencing many hazardous events over the past five years. Nearly all the participants (an overwhelming 96 percent) experienced hurricanes, flooding, and industrial fires while 87 percent experienced chemical spills, and another 80 percent lived through a tornado. Researchers found that when individuals went through two or more events over the past five years, their mental health composite score averages fell below the expected national levels in the United States of America. Further, the research results revealed that the more exposure the individuals had to hazardous events, the lower their mental health scores were.

Assistant Professor and psychiatrist at Atrium Health wake Forest Baptist in Winston Salem, North Carolina,  Steven Scoggin, PsyD, said that in the days or hours before a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood, people can actually be on a high. Adrenaline levels are high as people mobilise their energy and efforts. However, after the disaster occurs and the rebuilding phase sets in, depression and anxiety often set in. This usually falls between six months to a year after the occurrence of the disaster.

In many ways, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has a lot of parallels. Unlike a natural disaster, however, Covid-19 came with no warning, no lead time to prepare, and no fixed ending in sight.

As such, people’s cortisol levels stay up for a prolonged period of time which takes a toll.

Dr. Scoggin opined that the grit approach and trying to be strong all the time isn’t necessarily the best approach at a time like this. Trauma has its own effects on the brain, and we need to pay attention to those effects rather than just trying to push through. The healthier approach would be to name what’s going on with you and be aware of what’s happening in your body and mind. Talk with loved ones or even seek out a mental health professional if you need to.

Dr. Sansom echoes his concern for people’s mental health during the pandemic. Based on data collected immediately prior to the pandemic, there are concerns that the already significant mental health issues we found will be exacerbated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

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