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People who survive multiple disasters have worse mental health

Propane tanks are placed in a line as people wait for the power to turn on to fill their tanks in Houston on Feb. 17, 2021. (Mark Felix for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

In the aftermath of a disaster such as a fire or flood, the focus tends to be on rebuilding and getting back to normal.

But in places that have experienced multiple disasters, mental resiliency could be harder to rebuild than a house or business.

That’s the implication of a recent study that shows people who have been through multiple disasters have worse mental health than the national average.

The study, published in the journal Natural Hazards, surveyed people who live in the Houston metropolitan area. That part of Texas has seen disaster after disaster in recent years; between 2000 and 2020, FEMA responded to 33 disaster declarations ranging from drought to hurricanes to deep freezes.

Researchers from Texas A&M University used a survey that assesses mental and physical health over time. Over 96 percent of participants had experienced industrial fires; the same percentage experienced hurricanes and flooding, and respondents reported living through disasters such as chemical spills and tornadoes.

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Overall, the participants’ average mental health score was comparable to national averages. But the more disasters a person had lived through, the more likely they were to dip below that average.

“We discovered the reverse of the adage ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger,’ ” said the study’s lead author Garett Sansom, research assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the School of Public Health, in a news release.

The deviation from the national average was slight, but the relationship between disaster exposure and lower mental health scores persisted even when researchers adjusted the data for sex, race, age and educational attainment. The more disasters, the lower the mental health score; most people who lived through five or more scored as low as 10 percent below the national average.

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The data contained one curveball: Older participants who had gone through multiple disasters had better scores than younger ones.

“This increase could be attributed to individuals developing more resiliency or coping skills with age,” the researchers write.

It will take more research to understand how disasters affect mental health, the researchers say. Meanwhile, they say, officials and policymakers should focus on programs to rebuild mental resiliency — a move that would build up not just structures, but survivors.