Investigating Factors That Can Mitigate Natural Disaster Trauma
A recent study led by Beren Crim Sabuncu, an FSU College of Social Work doctoral student explored how spiritual and social support can be related to the long-term impacts of trauma. One source of trauma on the rise is natural disasters, Crim noted.
Crim, PhD candidate Wenyi Li, and FSU Distinguished Research Professor Dr. Amy L. Ai were particularly interested in the relationships between these protective factors and hurricane-related trauma for volunteers responding after a storm.
“Volunteers are often among the first responders to provide support to a disaster site,” explained Crim. “Yet, a majority of these volunteers are not trained mental health professionals and are not armed with the knowledge that can help them cope with the impact of exposure to the pain and suffering experienced after a natural disaster like a hurricane.”
Although there are many internal and external supports, this study focused on spiritual and social support due to previous research pointing to how vital they are for resilience.
“Religion and spirituality, even when practiced autonomously or internally, can be an internal resource for coping and has been linked to positive outcomes and wellbeing following crises in the previous study on the first wave survey,” said Dr. Ai at the College of Social Work. “Social support taps into our desire for interconnectedness. Human connection is integral and multifaceted. Trauma experiences can be alienating, but social support may hold tangible benefits to help people cope with trauma.”
The study’s participants were specifically volunteers working in an area dealing with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita when the State’s disaster relief system was overwhelmed. The study revealed that social support for this population appeared to be a protective factor against long-term trauma symptoms. However, this study on the follow-up wave of the survey did not associate spiritual support with the outcome. “The inconsistency between findings in the two waves may lie in the significant attrition of African American participants who depended more on spirituality than their Caucasian counterparts in the first way study,” as noted by Dr. Ai.
“Future research in this area needs to take into account not only larger and more diverse populations of volunteers, but to examine whether the length of time a volunteer is involved in disaster response may impact them,” stated Crim. “It may also be beneficial to see if the type of volunteer position, such as medical versus resource positions, might impact resilience and trauma symptoms.” “More longitudinal studies are warranted as well,” added Dr. Ai.
Other related analyses led by Li, a doctoral student in education, also found indicated that certain personality traits may help to mitigate post-traumatic symptoms over time after a disaster. Specifically, optimism and altruism seem to be protective personality traits against natural disaster-induced trauma.
For the research team, understanding the internal or external resources that might potentially protect volunteers from the impact of trauma offers a unique opportunity for mental health researchers working with both volunteers and victims of natural disasters.
“Mental health professionals cannot be omnipresent in these disaster scenarios. And it is no surprise that many aid efforts are directed towards displaced populations and communities in turmoil following a disaster,” said Crim, “By examining these resources, we are virtually asking the question of what can be done to support disaster response volunteers, but how can they also better protect themselves.”
More research is needed to aid the recovery of victimized individuals and disadvantaged communities from natural disasters. Due to the significant impact of increasing extreme climate events, such studies are of particular importance to clinical social work research and practice.
“For the sustainability of their efforts and, most importantly, for volunteers’ inner peace, examining the protective factors might help protect volunteers and victims from long-term traumatic consequences,” Crim added.