Natural Disasters May Increase Substance Abuse Risk, Study Finds

Study examined substance abuse rates before and after Hurricane Katrina.

— -- The dangers of hurricanes, earthquakes and floods can seem clear, with high winds, rising waters or powerful tectonic movements understandably drawing the most concern. But a new study published today found that a natural disaster can also cause lasting damage to a population in another way: through an increased risk of substance abuse.

They found that the rate of hospitalizations for substance abuse increased approximately 30 percent, from 7.13 hospitalizations for 1,000 people to 9.65 hospitalizations for every 1,000 people, according to the finding published in the medical journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

"This result is not surprising given that a large segment of the local population experienced trauma, which had the potential to increase hospitalization rates at the same time that the city’s population was reduced," the authors wrote in the study. "These 2 factors accounted for the high hospitalization rates in areas that lost population."

Certain neighborhoods that had "blighted blocks," high levels of poverty and displaced persons after the storm had higher rates of hospitalizations for substance abuse, the study found. None of these factors, except for high levels of poverty, were associated with increased risk of substance abuse hospitalization before Hurricane Katrina.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, warns that people traumatized by major disasters can be at particular risk for a substance abuse disorder.

"Although everyone reacts differently to disasters, some of those affected may suffer from serious mental or emotional distress," SAMHSA explains online. "These individuals may develop or experience exacerbation of existing mental health or substance use problems, including for example, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)."

The study did have limitations, including the fact that some people who had physical conditions exacerbated by this storm and were not previously hospitalized, may have already had a substance abuse problem and were just now identified after storm put more strain on their health.

The researchers said they hope this information can help public health officials develop a plan to identify at-risk populations for substance abuse disorder in areas affected by natural disasters.

"Consensus is emerging among disaster researchers that psychological disorders and substance abuse increases in the aftermath of both man-made and natural disasters," the authors wrote. "Exposure to a disaster can entail physical threats to life and post-disaster behavior and readjustment problems (e.g., dealing with loss of home, friends, or family). These events can increase the risk of substance abuse, such as extensive drinking or drug use, as a coping mechanism."