Natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires can result in catastrophic destruction of homes, businesses and infrastructure. In response to the devastation around them, survivors may turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to help them escape their grief, anger and emotional pain.
Areas hit by natural disasters are often like a blighted area with deteriorating buildings and unsafe living conditions. The lingering effects of natural disasters on physical, emotional and behavioral health can be enormous. Increased rates of substance use and abuse are one possible result of exposure to such conditions.
Whether they receive warnings ahead of time or not, people caught in the path of natural disasters may not be fully prepared for the trail of destruction an avalanche, landslide or tsunami can leave behind. Homes may become unreachable or uninhabitable even if they aren’t completely destroyed, and people who don’t have friends or relatives in safe areas may end up living in uncomfortable, overcrowded shelters for indefinite periods.
Food, water, gas and other necessary supplies and resources might be scarce or non-existent, and political leaders and emergency management personnel may not be able to deliver the help they promise in a timely matter. Economic problems often accompany natural disasters as well. Businesses may have to close because of damage or the disappearance of their customers in abandoned areas, and those who’ve suffered other losses may suddenly find themselves without a source of income.
In addition to these practical concerns, families who’ve lost loved ones will be emotionally devastated, and they will have to cope with their grief in circumstances that are already overwhelming. For every fatality, there will likely be many more serious injuries that require hospitalization, and possibly intensive care, and that is yet another problem that people must deal with when they’re affected by a natural disaster.
In such stressful and uncertain circumstances, an increase in drug and alcohol consumption is one possible consequence. Substance abuse is often a response to unbearable tragedy and/or anxiety, and natural disasters offer both in ample quantities.
Research studies focused on the mental health and substance use impact of Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed the city of New Orleans in 2005. One study, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared pre-Katrina and post-Katrina rates of hospitalization for substance abuse in New Orleans. They discovered that the number of people hospitalized for drugs and alcohol rose from 7.13 people per 1,000 of population in 2004 to 9.65 per 1,000 in 2008, which represents a 35 percent increase[i].
In support of this data, addiction specialists and other medical professionals reported increases in the number of people seeking treatment for addiction and alcohol following Hurricane Sandy, which caused enormous destruction along the Atlantic coast in 2012. The biggest spike in drug and alcohol use occurred among adolescents, a population already highly vulnerable to substance abuse[ii].
It should be noted that exposure to natural disasters in and of itself may not be enough to spur a jump in addiction. In the 1990s, studies of the survivor population in Florida following Hurricane Andrew found only modest increases in substance abuse[iii]. While rates of alcohol abuse rose by just two percent, no notable increases in drug use were found.
Analysis of the data from various studies indicates that certain co-occurring factors are pivotal in determining which natural disaster survivors are likely to encounter issues with alcohol or drugs. Specifically, survivors trapped in poverty and lacking economic opportunity are highly vulnerable to chemical dependency after such exposures, as are those with a previous history of drug or alcohol abuse. For instance, prior to Katrina, New Orleans had some of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty, compared to other cities in the U.S., and one of the highest drug-use rates.
Mental health issues may also be triggered by natural disasters, and people struggling with mental illness frequently turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with or escape from their symptoms[iv]. Consequently, improving access to treatment for mental health disorders following natural disasters would likely have an impact on the incidence of substance use disorders among vulnerable populations.
The possibility of encountering a natural disaster is not insubstantial. On a worldwide basis, more than 350 natural disasters are experienced each year, putting more than 500 million people in harm’s way[v].
In the United States, between 20 and 25 exposures to nature-based emergency conditions is typical in any given year. While most don’t result in significant loss of life, they all cause at least some physical injuries, damage to property, dislocation from housing and emotional hardship.
Natural disasters can exacerbate substance abuse and mental health problems, for vulnerable persons, neighborhoods and communities. For people who’ve lived through these events, they may be dealing with a variety of issues such as stress, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Transformations Treatment Center integrates trauma-focused care into all our addiction recovery plans including our Christian, First Responder, Veterans and SoundPath Music Recovery programs. Upon completing our treatment program, a member of our discharge team will meet with you to help create an individualized aftercare plan to guide you through continuing care after treatment.