Physical and mental health in vulnerable communities following Hurricane Harvey

Unexpected research findings show mental health scores higher than the national average and physical health scores significantly lower for vulnerable Houston communities
March 23, 2020

Natural and human-caused disasters can bring devastation to an entire community, but some groups experience greater impacts to property and physical and mental health than others. People living in areas characterized by lower socioeconomic status can find themselves disproportionately affected by disasters and often face environmental hazards such as pollution and toxic exposures that people in other communities face to a smaller degree, if at all. Disasters and exposure to different risks can certainly affect mental health. However, not much is known about how disasters affect the mental health of residents in these areas, known as environmental justice communities.

A new study published in BMC Public Health investigates the physical and mental health of residents in some of Houston’s environmental justice communities following Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The study led by Garett Sansom, DrPH, research assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, used information from a survey conducted after a community meeting organized by a Houston-based emergency management and public safety non-profit two months after Harvey. The focus of the survey was the environmental concerns and the self-reported physical and mental health of Houston residents after the storm.

The research team included Sansom’s colleague from the School of Public Health, Katie Kirsch, and Jennifer Horney, PhD, of the University of Delaware.

Houston is home to many environmental justice communities in the south and east sides, which is where much of the city’s industrial development is concentrated. These parts of Houston frequently face greater exposure to environmental hazards and often have infrastructure that is outdated and unable to handle flooding. Many of the people living in these areas are also of lower socioeconomic status and a relatively high proportion have disabilities.

The survey given to meeting participants consisted of three main sections. The first section focused on demographic factors like age, gender, race, residence location and length of time living in that area. The second section assessed respondent perceptions on various environmental risks like air pollution and flooding near industrial facilities, housing conditions and access to public transportation. The final section used a well-established assessment tool to measure self-reported physical and mental health.

Approximately 150 people responded to the survey, with the vast majority of respondents being female, African-American and over the age of 65. Around 90 percent of the respondents lived in south Houston neighborhoods and the average duration of residence was 34.3 years. Nearly 40 percent of the respondents reported problems with flooding in their neighborhoods and nearly 36 percent considered pollution their largest concern. Insufficient public transportation, public services and city maintenance were additional concerns the respondents cited.

The physical and mental health scores of the respondents were somewhat unexpected, though. The self-reported mental health scores were higher than the national average in the United States for both men and women. In contrast, the physical health scores were significantly lower than average. Further analysis found no connection between physical health and the length of time respondents lived in their neighborhoods, but residents who had lived in their neighborhoods longer reported better mental health. These differences stand in contrast to previous research on similar populations using the same assessment that found physical and mental health were roughly correlated.

The differences between physical and mental health and correlation between residence duration and mental health point to possible benefits of promoting engagement within communities. Meetings and other events focused on disaster preparation and recovery may improve the resiliency of residents following a disaster. This is also supported by previous research showing that disadvantaged groups can face higher levels of stress and depression following a disaster and that people with support from friends, family and organizations like faith-based, government or academic groups often have greater mental resilience after disasters.

However, the researchers note a few limitations to the study. First, there was no comparison between groups with varying socioeconomic status or hazard exposures. Also, the survey may have missed the most vulnerable populations as the respondents were all capable of traveling to the event. Lastly, there was no assessment of health or perceptions before Harvey. Despite these limitations, the findings from this study shed light on how community engagement and physical and mental health impacts of disasters interact. This study can serve as a starting point for further research on how community engagement can benefit environmental justice communities in the wake of disasters. With a better understanding, policy makers and community leaders can build new ways to support vulnerable populations and improve resilience in the face of disasters.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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