Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Mental illness and suicidality after Hurricane Katrina

Ronald C Kessler, Sandro Galea, Russell T Jones, & Holly A Parker

ABSTRACT

OBJECTIVE

To estimate the impact of Hurricane Katrina on mental illness and suicidality by comparing results of a post-Katrina survey with those of an earlier survey.

METHODS

The National Comorbidity Survey-Replication, conducted between February 2001 and February 2003, interviewed 826 adults in the Census Divisions later affected by Hurricane Katrina. The post-Katrina survey interviewed a new sample of 1043 adults who lived in the same area before the hurricane. Identical questions were asked about mental illness and suicidality. The post-Katrina survey also assessed several dimensions of personal growth that resulted from the trauma (for example, increased closeness to a loved one, increased religiosity). Outcome measures used were the K6 screening scale of serious mental illness and mild–moderate mental illness and questions about suicidal ideation, plans and attempts.

FINDINGS

Respondents to the post-Katrina survey had a significantly higher estimated prevalence of serious mental illness than respondents to the earlier survey (11.3% after Katrina versus 6.1% before; c²1= 10.9; P < 0.001) and mild–moderate mental illness (19.9% after Katrina versus 9.7% before; c²1 = 22.5; P < 0.001). Among respondents estimated to have mental illness, though, the prevalence of suicidal ideation and plans was significantly lower in the post-Katrina survey (suicidal ideation 0.7% after Katrina versus 8.4% before; c²1 = 13.1; P < 0.001; plans for suicide 0.4% after Katrina versus 3.6% before; c²1 = 6.0; P = 0.014). This lower conditional prevalence of suicidality was strongly related to two dimensions of personal growth after the trauma (faith in one’s own ability to rebuild one’s life, and realization of inner strength), without which between-survey differences in suicidality were insignificant.

CONCLUSION

Despite the estimated prevalence of mental illness doubling after Hurricane Katrina, the prevalence of suicidality was unexpectedly low. The role of post-traumatic personal growth in ameliorating the effects of trauma-related mental illness on suicidality warrants further investigation.

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