Study Identifies Post-Disaster Risks for Increased Substance Abuse

By using a mixed-methods approach, a recent study found that natural disasters can cause lasting damage to a population in another way—through increased risk of substance use.

After the winds die, the flood waters recede, and the debris is removed, coping with the loss of a home, loved ones, friends, or employment can be wearisome for survivors of a natural disaster.

Health Geographer Dr. Imelda Moise

Researchers have shown that psychological disorders and substance abuse increases in the aftermath of an earthquake, flood, or major storm. This presents challenges to health officials and government response teams who need to identify at-risk groups in affected communities to provide tailored interventions and services in a timely manner.

A recent study, led by University of Miami health geographer Dr. Imelda K. Moise, examines substance abuse and hospitalization data from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals to see if there was a change in the rate of hospitalizations for substance abuse disorders in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and to identify areas at greatest risk for hospitalizations.

According to the findings published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, the researchers  found that the rate of hospitalizations for substance abuse increased from 7 people for every 1,000 people to 9 people for every 1,000 people in an area of New Orleans.

“This result is not surprising given that a large segment of the local population experienced trauma, which had the potential to increase hospitalization rates at the same time that the city’s population was reduced,” said Moise, an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Geography and Regional Studies. “These two factors accounted for the high hospitalization rates in areas that lost population. At the same time, this displacement resulted in local population shifts and was a major contributing factor to this finding and underscores the effect of population shifts on statistical calculations after disasters.”

The study also indicated that those most affected included men (78 percent in 2004 to 63 percent in 2008), those between 20 and 49 years of age, non-whites, and residents living in neighborhoods where cleanup was delayed.

“What we saw was that geographic patterns of hospitalization for substance abuse disorders shifted in post-Katrina from flood-exposed areas to less exposed areas located in the center of the city, areas used for evacuees displaced by the hurricane,” said Moise.

The researchers used spatial cluster analysis methods and geographical information system (GIS) techniques to detect areas where there were elevated cases of substance abuse disorder hospitalizations and associated neighborhood connections. 

“This made it possible to identify at-risk areas and populations in need, and generated information that can be used by public health officials to deploy targeted interventions and treatment for substance use disorders to those affected individuals and neighborhoods in a timely manner,” added Moise.

Moise says disasters can have silent negative effects on individuals and communities, as such it’s important to reach out to those affected in the aftermath of disasters. The techniques used in her study can be applied anywhere, for any public health outcomes, and particularly in post-disaster settings.

“For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, local city governments can use geospatial techniques and tools to pinpoint areas of greatest need and then work closely with disaster response personnel and volunteers to direct the right resources to those places at the right time,” said Moise. “As geographers, we can contribute to research on substance use and in disaster response efforts by utilizing geographical tools and methodologies to identify at-risk groups in affected communities, with information used to provide timely tailored interventions and services to improve outcomes and lower costs.”

Moise collaborated on this study with Dr. Marilyn O. Ruiz from the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 

October 28, 2016