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Individual and Community Resilience Factors Influence Psychological Resilience After Hurricane Sandy

Author: Sarah R. Lowe, PhD, Associate Research Scientist, Department of Epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University; Marcienne M. Wright, PhD, Hurricane Sandy Recovery Science program official, HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response; Laura Sampson, Statistical Analyst, Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, Boston University, and Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH, Dean and Professor of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, Boston University
Published Date: 5/29/2015 3:39:00 PM
Category: Response & Recovery; Public Health Preparedness; Innovations;

We know that people react differently to disasters psychologically – some bounce back quickly while others report serious symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder or major depressive disorder. The ability to bounce back from a disaster and sustain low levels of psychological symptoms over time is called psychological resilience. We also know that psychological resilience is important for individuals and communities, but we really don’t know much about the community factors that support psychological resilience, since few studies have been conducted on this topic.

To help fill this gap, ASPR awarded a research grant to Boston University that was aimed at better understanding the individual and community level factors that influence mental health after a large scale disaster. Specifically, the study looked at individual factors, such as gender, socioeconomic status and past exposure to stressful events from a representative sample of residents in the New York City neighborhoods that were most severely affected by Hurricane Sandy. The study also examined the impact that the interaction between individual factors and the resources of the community have on overall psychological resilience.

Some of the study’s findings were as anticipated, but others were definitely a surprise to the researchers. For example, the researchers expected to find that residents of communities with more people living by themselves had lower levels of psychological resilience – but that wasn’t what they found. Turns out, residents of communities with more people living by themselves actually experienced higher levels of psychological resilience. Researchers aren’t sure why this is the case, but some possible reasons include:

  • Higher Social Capital:  A community with more people living alone could actually have higher levels of social capital during disasters. Residents might have more connections with friends and family in other neighborhoods and could have called upon them for assistance during Sandy.
  • Economic Resources:  Communities with more residents living alone in New York City also may have more economic resources that, in turn, could protect against post-traumatic stress.
  • Lower Exposure:  Researchers noted that the neighborhoods with the lowest percentages of residents living alone were concentrated in areas that were the least exposed to Hurricane Sandy, including Midtown Manhattan. Lower exposure could foster community resilience.

The study looked at other individual and community level factors as well.

For example, the study concluded that communities with higher median household incomes did not have lower levels of depression overall. However, living in a higher-income community was associated with lower depression for study participants who had not experienced stressors, like displacement, loss of power, financial loss or property damage.

The study’s findings built on prior research and confirmed some existing findings. Levels of psychological resilience are higher among men, people with a higher socioeconomic status, and those who had been exposed to fewer stressful events.

There is still a lot we don’t know about the ways individual and community factors predict psychological resilience and we need more research in this area. Additional research could help promote mental health in communities affected by Hurricane Sandy and other disasters. But this study has helped us better understand a topic that could help public health and emergency management professionals work more effectively with their communities.

To learn more, check out the full results of this study, Psychological Resilience after Hurricane Sandy: The Influence of Individual- and Community-Level Factors on Mental Health after a Large-Scale Natural Disaster Exit Icon.

This research project is part of a larger series of ASPR Grants that support scientific research and related to Hurricane Sandy Recovery. ASPR’s Sandy recovery science researchers are working on projects that could shed light on how Hurricane Sandy impacted individual and community resilience, the health system response and healthcare access, and mental health outcomes. The more that we learn about the factors that impact disaster recovery, the better equipped we will be to make informed decisions when seconds count or even for years after the disaster.

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