Suicide rate increases when natural disasters occur: Study

Chennai: A study that examined the impact of 281 natural disasters on suicide rates during a 12-year span has said suicide rates increase when natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes occur.

According to researchers, including the University of Delaware’s Jennifer Horney, founding director of the epidemiology programme in the College of Health Sciences, disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes are occurring with increasing frequency and severity across the globe.

In addition to impacting local communities, infrastructure and the economy, these disasters also can lead to severe emotional distress and anxiety for those living in their paths.

They looked at disaster declaration data and found overall suicide rates increased by 23 per cent when compared with rates before and after the disaster.

Suicide rates increased for all types of disasters—including severe storms, floods, hurricanes and ice storms—with the largest overall increase occurring two years after a disaster, according to an article published in The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention.

Horney said, “That finding is important, I think, because those could be preventable deaths with better disaster preparedness and response.”

“It’s particularly important to consider the risk of suicide since those with more existing social vulnerabilities live in areas with a greater risk of being damaged by disaster.”

Scientists looked at counties in the continental US with a single major disaster declaration between 2003 and 2015, based on data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). For each county, suicide rates were estimated for three 12-month periods before and after the disaster. Although FEMA gives disaster declarations for nine types of disasters, storms, floods and hurricanes occurred frequently enough to be included in the study.

For all disaster types combined as well as individually for severe storms, flooding and ice storms, researchers found the suicide rate increased in both the first and second year following a disaster, then declined in the third year.

Flooding saw suicide rates increase by nearly 18 per cent the first year and 61 per cent the second year before declining to the baseline rate after that.

On the other hand, the suicide rate following hurricanes rose in the first year—jumping 26 per cent—then returned to the baseline in the second year.

“Counties impacted by hurricanes saw the biggest increase in the rate of suicide in the first year, which makes sense because it’s the most widespread type of disaster among those we examined,” Horney added.