Pre-disaster predictions linked to post-disaster psychological outcomes

  • hurricane photo

First-of-its-kind research conducted in Florida before Hurricane Irma hit

Researchers are the first to study individuals in the hours before a hurricane hit their community. Their report, published in JAMA Network Open, reveals that individuals who forecast they’d be experiencing posttraumatic stress after the storm were more likely to consume media in advance of the storm and had more negative post-storm mental health outcomes.

“We examined a specific risk factor – forecasted posttraumatic stress responses – in the context of an approaching disaster, Hurricane Irma, to gain a more thorough understanding of how pre-storm psychological factors are associated with subsequent adjustment, via media consumption,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, professor of psychological science and senior author of the study. “We found that pre-storm predictions about post-storm posttraumatic stress were more strongly associated with media consumption and subsequent adjustment to the storm than perceived evacuation status or direct hurricane exposure.”

Previous research by the UCI team linked exposure to disaster-related media coverage with negative mental health outcomes, but specific issues that render individuals vulnerable to this media exposure have been understudied.

Silver, along with Rebecca R. Thompson, a psychological science postdoctoral scholar, and E. Alison Holman, an associate professor in the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, conducted a longitudinal study of a representative sample of more than 1,600 residents across the state of Florida in the 60 hours before Hurricane Irma’s 2017 landfall and resurveyed them about one month later.

Although information seeking is a rational response for community members facing an impending threat, it may – rather than assuaging anxiety – lead to more intense stress for many individuals. As a result, these people may be susceptible to a cycle of increased media consumption and psychological distress in the aftermath.

“Our findings suggest a need to improve hurricane-related risk communications by emergency management and public health officials to the community, due to the importance of the impact that pre-storm psychological factors have on post-storm outcomes,” said Thompson, first author of the report. “Conveying a hazard-specific, appropriate level of risk could mitigate this concern by ensuring that official news reports are not creating undue levels of stress in the population. In addition, public service announcements or other education efforts can be leveraged to inform the community about the potential risk of sensationalized media coverage.”