September 4, 2017

Substance Abuse Increases After Natural Disasters

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Medicially Reviewed By:
Dr. Priya Chaudhri
credentials here

Substance Abuse Increases After Natural Disasters

Right now the news is saturated with heart wrenching stories about the victims of hurricane Harvey. It seems everywhere we turn there is more bad news about the damage done, people who will be displaced for years to come, and even fatalities. In addition to the aftermath of the hurricane in Houston, there are over 8,000 acres of wildfires currently burning in California caused by a severe heat wave.

Unfortunately, these tragic circumstances are often accompanied by something that is insidious and not quite as obvious as demolished houses: substance abuse. Psychology studies suggest that people abuse drugs and alcohol more often after natural disaster. While we cannot know the exact reasons for every case, it seems substances are often used to sooth psychological distress.

The Risk for People with Mental Health Disorders

Research shows that people who already have a mental health disorder are more likely to abuse substances after a natural disaster. One study assessed survivors for substance abuse after the Oklahoma City bombing. Researchers found that 6% of people without another mental health disorder used substances to cope. However, a staggering 13% – 40% of people with a mental health disorder abused substances as a coping mechanism.

If you or someone you know has been affected by the hurricane or fires and they have a mental health diagnosis, you might want to be extra cautious about substance use. It is important to offer people with these diagnoses mental health resources following tragic events. If we do not provide such support conditions can get worse as substance abuse rates rise.

Poverty and Proximity

Two of the biggest risk factors for substance abuse related complications are poverty and proximity to the natural disaster. One study published on looked at how often people were hospitalized for substance abuse disorders following Hurricane Katrina. The study found that people were hospitalized more for substance abuse ofter the hurricane. However, they found that this increase was even more dramatic among certain people. Specifically, low-income individuals and people living closer to the flood zones had a dramatic increase in the number of hospitalizations following the storm

Here is what we can assume based on this research: people who have less money and face the most devastation are at a higher risk of substance abuse after natural disasters. So, what can we do in order to help? You can donate money that will help the victims, support first response organizations, and make recovery easy to find. This means trying to find places for recovery meetings following disasters or volunteering to lead phone meetings.

Statistics About Substance Abuse Following Disasters

Numerous studies about different disaster all over the world show the same thing. When a disaster happens the rates of substance abuse and even addiction go up.

  • In New Orleans, hospitalizations for substance abuse increased 2.5% in the years following Hurricane Katrina
  • Following 9/11, alcohol consumption went up 24.6%, smoking went up 18%, and marijuana use went up 3% among New Yorkers
  • After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the rate of substance addiction went up more than 4%


Heads Up

Why Substance Abuse Increases

It is impossible to say with certainty what causes substances abuse to rise after disasters. However, one good explanation is that people use drugs and alcohol in order to self soothe. Most of the studies mentioned above found that people had all kinds of psychological distress after disasters. In some cases this manifested as an increase in PTSD, depression, or anxiety. In others, people just reported feeling worse after these traumatic events.

Alcohol and other depressants effect the brain in such a way that it often has a down-regulating effect. In other words, these types of drugs feel calming for the mind and the body. To learn more about how some of these kinds of drugs effect your brain you can click here. People sometimes use these types of substances because it helps them relax or feel better. When you consider people often feel stressed and agitated after disasters, it makes sense why they would turn toward these substances for help.

Another reason that substance abuse might increase is that there are less available mental health services or places for social support. If you were in treatment for a mental health disorder and now you are unable to see your care provider or get your medication, it might make you feel like turning to substances. Likewise, if you went to church every week and now you are unable to you might start to feel isolated and alone. This lack of social support might be one big reason that substance abuse increases after natural disasters.

Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress

We know that a lot of this post has focused on what can go wrong after a natural disaster. However, there are ways to cope with psychological stress that are much healthier than drugs or alcohol. Of course, one of the big issues is that people are often torn from there homes and have few resources. So, it is important to remember the coping mechanisms that require little or no money and are relatively easy to do.

You can try meditating. Even just a few minutes of meditation might help boost your mood and calm you down. You don’t need any special equipment or even a phone. You can just sit on your bed for 2-5 minutes and focus on relaxing the different places of tension in your body. You can try other breathing exercises like taking in a deep inhale and making a “s” sound as you exhale very slowly. Elongating your exhale will engage the parasympathetic nervous system and help calm you down. You might also try striking up a conversation with a stranger, focusing on something that feels positive, or taking a short walk. All of these things have been shown to improve mood and functioning.

We know that it is hard to find healthy ways to cope when things get tough. There is arguably nothing more difficult to get through than the aftermath of a natural disaster. However, we hope that you are able to remain vigilant about the increased risk of substance abuse and hopefully find another way to get through the hard times.

Our team of experts is here to help you.