Hurricane Katrina victims who lost their homes in the tragedy are five times more likely to suffer from psychological distress than their counterparts who did not lose homes, a study led by an American researcher of Indian origin has found.
Narayan Sastry of the University of Michigan and Mark VanLandingham of Tulane University examined the mental health status of pre-Katrina residents of New Orleans in the fall of 2006, one year after the hurricane hit the city.
The researchers analysed disparities in mental health by race, education and income.
Conducting a pilot survey, they drew a stratified, area-based probability sample of pre-Katrina dwellings in the city, which formed the basis for the study.
The study, designed by a non-profit research organization called RAND Corporation, is one of the first to provide data representative of the pre-hurricane population.
Of the 144 persons who participated in the pilot study, many were those who moved away from the area after the disaster and had not returned a year later.
Over 50 per cent of the participants were black, nearly two-thirds had a high school diploma or less education, and nearly 60 per cent were unmarried. Nearly three-fourths were employed in the month before the hurricane hit.
Sastry revealed that about 60 per cent of study participants had no psychological distress at the time of the interview, about 20 per cent had mild-to-moderate mental illness, and another 20 per cent had serious mental illness.
The research team asked a number of questions from a widely used measure of general psychological distress for assessing mental illness.
They found Blacks reporting substantially higher rates of serious psychological distress than whites, with almost one-third of blacks having a high degree of distress as compared to just six percent of whites.
While people with higher incomes and more education were much less likely to experience serious psychological distress, those born in Louisiana were much more likely to have serious distress.
When the researchers looked at how the extent of housing damage was related to psychological distress a year after the disaster, they found that people who lost their homes were five times more likely than those who did not to have serious psychological distress.
About 66 per cent of the respondents reported that their homes were badly damaged or unlivable.
"Our findings suggest that severe damage to one's home is a particularly important factor behind socioeconomic disparities in psychological distress, and possibly behind the levels of psychological distress. These effects may be partly economic, because, for most families who own their home, home equity is the largest element of household wealth," Sastry said
"Apart from the financial losses, severely damaged or destroyed housing may prevent people who want to return to New Orleans from doing so because they lack a place to live. This affects their social ties, their employment, and many other factors. The magnitude and permanence of a housing loss suggests that for many people, the psychological consequences of this experience could be profound and lasting," Sastry added.
While presenting their findings at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in New Orleans, the researchers said that they were planning a larger study.