Preexisting Health Issues Add to Problems for Disaster Survivors

People with disabilities, mental woes have toughest time recovering from hurricanes, bombings: analysis

THURSDAY, Aug. 26, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Natural and man-made disasters are difficult for any person to endure, but researchers point out that these situations are particularly tough on people with disabilities and mental disorders.

Their research is published in a series of articles in a special section of the journal Rehabilitation Psychology that focuses on disaster management for people with disabilities.

"Katrina taught us a harsh lesson about the plight of vulnerable people in times of disaster and national emergency," journal editor Timothy Elliott, of Texas A&M University, said in a news release from the American Psychological Association, which publishes the journal.

One study looked at Hurricane Katrina survivors with a wide range of disabilities. The researchers interviewed case managers and supervisors who provided services to 2,047 individuals with disabilities and their families after the 2005 storm. Two years after the disaster, these survivors still faced major barriers to housing, transportation and disaster services. They were also less likely to have jobs, which affected their ability to pay utility bills or buy furniture when they finally made it into more permanent housing.

The researchers also found that people with disabilities were more likely to have medical needs, which affected their ability to travel to service agencies or get jobs. Case management with disabled survivors takes longer because they need help in many multiple areas of their lives, the study authors noted.

"Case managers who are knowledgeable about the needs of people with disabilities are essential when navigating an already difficult service system following a disaster of [Katrina's] magnitude," lead author Laura Stough, of Texas A&M University, noted in the news release.

In another report in the journal, researchers examined the impact of both Hurricane Katrina and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. For the research, 182 mostly injured bombing survivors were assessed, as were 421 hurricane evacuees who had been evaluated in a mental health clinic at a Dallas shelter.

The most common psychiatric diagnosis for the bombing victims was post-traumatic stress disorder, with 34 percent of participants suffering from the problem. The second most common psychiatric diagnosis was major depression, according to the article.

But the analysis noted that the hurricane actually affected a greater number of people who were members of an already disadvantaged population. The main tasks in the mental health clinic were rapid diagnostic assessment, resumption of psychotropic medications, and a link-up to psychiatric care for already existing disorders, they explained.

"Interventions to address unmet treatment needs for an abundance of pre-existing and persistent psychiatric illness would not have been the primary response needed for Oklahoma City survivors," said the study's lead author, Dr. Carol North, from the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

More information

The Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities offers disaster preparedness tips for people with disabilities.

SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, Aug. 23, 2010
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