When we see a natural disaster in the news, we might see pictures of houses destroyed and estimates of how many people are dead or injured. For survivors, though, there’s a less tangible kind of damage natural disasters inflict that isn’t talked about as much: damage to people’s mental health. The mental health effects of a natural disaster are felt for years after the event itself.

To learn more about how the mental health consequences of natural disasters, researchers from   Sichuan University surveyed 435 children and adolescents who had survived two major earthquakes in remote mountainous regions of China.

The researchers followed up with participants 12 months and 30 months after the earthquakes. At 12 months, they found that 43.9 percent of the people surveyed had PTSD, 20.9 percent had depression, and 18.9 percent had both PTSD and depression. At 30 months, 15.7 percent of the participants had PTSD while 21.6 still had depression.

Several factors predicted which people were more likely to experience PTSD or depression in the wake of the disasters. Specifically, those who had lost a family member, witnessed previous earthquakes, had lower socioeconomic status, or had poor relationships with their parents were at higher risk.

Interpreting the result, the authors point out that while some children and adolescents who experience PTSD or depression after natural disasters recover within a couple years, some do not. According to the researchers, “some exhibit chronic, delayed-onset PTSD and depression, especially those with poor relationships with their parents or those living in precarious economic conditions.”

The idea that those with poor parent-child relationships are more vulnerable to mental health disorders in the years following earthquakes fits with previous research that has found a link between social support and resilience after natural disasters. For example, one study found that social support as well as personality and spiritual beliefs affected how people recovered from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Another found that social support predicted quality of life.

These studies are a good reminder that some of the many kinds of destruction natural disasters bring with them have to do with mental health. Mental health issues like PTSD and depression make it harder for survivors to move on from what they experienced, and mental health care is an important part of rebuilding after natural disasters.

Image: Flickr/kakela