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Disasters and Mental Health Research

Dr. Sandro Galea, a National Institute of Mental Health grantee, talks about disasters and mental health research.

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Announcer: The images endure. The attacks on New York, the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. It's hard to imagine that anyone who witnessed those events or watched as the news unfolded wasn't affected in some manner. But what about those who were left with deep, internal scars- mental health issues following September 11th? What has science learned in the wake of such trauma? Dr. Sandro Galea is an NIMH funded researcher at New York City's Columbia University.

Dr. Sandro Galea: So, the September 11th terrorist attacks were the first large scale event in the United States that resulted in a large number of systematic studies trying to understand its consequences.

Announcer: Dr. Galea was part of a team of investigators who studied the mental health impact on people living in and around New York City.

Dr. Sandro Galea: We found that in the first few months after the attacks, about seven to nine percent of people had symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and depression. And that the symptoms resolved in a large proportion of people for the first six months to a year. But that a proportion of people continued to have symptoms in the long term and that proportion while small in a city as large as New York stands to represent, really, tens of thousands of people.

Announcer: As one might imagine, research indicates people who have been directly exposed to traumatic events, whether man-made or natural disasters such as hurricanes, are at risk of developing mental health issues.

Dr. Sandro Galea: But we also know that people who are isolated- socially isolated- are at great risk of mental illness after these events. We know that people who are exposed to stressors, including financial stressors, for example, stressors on family life, including stressors associated with getting housing are the people who are most likely to have mental illness and to continue having mental illness for many years after these events.

Announcer: This kind of research has helped create something of a blueprint on how mental health professionals can respond to individuals who have been exposed to traumatic events.

Dr. Sandro Galea: There is something now which is called psychological first aid which essentially consists of supportive care for the groups who are most affected and providing them with help to deal with the life stressors that are exacerbating the effects of trauma. We've learned in the past decade that rapid debriefing after these events is not effective. In fact, it may be harmful. We also have through several studies, particularly some studies that have been done after the bombings of buses and trains in England that one can stage a public mental health intervention where people are actually screened and observed for a few months. And the people who continue to have symptoms of mental illness can then be offered one of the several effective treatments for some of these disorders- including both pharmacotherapy as well as psychotherapy.

Announcer: The unpredictable nature of traumatic events will always create challenges in the mental health community. But the goal of on-going research is to study long range consequences and develop effective treatments for people who must try to recover… and put their lives together again.