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Suicides Rise After Natural Disasters
Reuters, February 5, 1998

Suicide rates tend to increase in local areas in the years following natural disasters, according to a US study appearing in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say their study shows that "suicide rates increase after severe earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes and confirms the need for mental health support after severe disasters." They focused on the suicide statistics of 377 US counties hit by a major natural disaster during the years 1982-1989. Suicide rates for each county were tracked for the four years following each disaster.

According to the researchers, the overall suicide rate for affected areas "... increased by 13.8% during the four years after a severe natural disaster," compared with just a 1% increase for the nation as a whole. Suicide patterns varied depending on the type of disaster. Increases in the rate of suicide in flood-stricken communities continued to rise each year after the event. Suicides in the 308 counties affected by flood climbed 13.8% overall, the researchers say, with the highest annual increase, 24.3%, occurring during the fourth post-disaster year. Hurricanes were associated with an overall 18.9% increase in suicides, but the researchers note that "this rate was elevated only for the first two years after hurricanes ... and was followed by a decline to the (pre-hurricane) level for the remaining two years." Earthquake-associated suicides rose by nearly 63% during the first post-disaster year, but then quickly returned to pre-quake levels. Tornadoes and severe storms had no noticeable effect on local suicide rates.

The researchers note that "victims of floods report four times as many injuries and three times as much financial loss as the victims of hurricanes and earthquakes," which might help explain the comparatively prolonged effect of floods upon local-area suicide rates. In the aftermath of many cataclysms, "stores, bars, clubhouses, or churches - places where people found friends and support - may have been destroyed," according to the study authors. They say previous studies have revealed that rates of depression and hopelessness inevitably rise among communities which have recently faced sudden, destructive events. The CDC experts believe their study confirms that "mental health support is needed after severe disasters, (and) that it should be available for varying periods."

SOURCE: The New England Journal of Medicine (1998;338(6):373-378)
Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited.