Contrary to popular beliefs about the impacts of disasters on mental health, psychiatric admissions fell immediately and significantly after the 2011 “devastating” series of earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, according to a study in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. In addition, the New Zealand-based researchers found that the reduction in use of mental health services has continued since that time.
“After the earthquake, total bed occupancy reduced from an average of 93% to 79%,” wrote the researchers. “Daily admissions also reduced by 20.2% for the 30 days following the earthquake. All diagnostic groups, with the exception of the ‘Schizophrenia, schizotypal and delusional disorders’ category, contributed to the reduction. No rebound to increased occupancy or admissions was seen over the study period.”
The researchers reported that there were similar declines in use of outpatient mental health services in Christchurch.
They suggested that these long-term reductions were particularly difficult to explain when the earthquake had also caused so many “persistent secondary stressors” on many people, such as insurance disputes and damages to housing and infrastructure. “Our analysis did not provide us with explanations as to why admissions after the earthquake were reduced acutely and failed to return to previous levels,” they wrote. “However, it is possible to speculate on a number of influencing factors.”
It was possible that “free counselling, increased primary health care services, and a range of other social supports” had been made available to people after the earthquake, speculated the researchers. They noted that other research on disasters has described “some beneficial effects of disasters for mental health through mechanisms such as increased community cohesiveness and support for those who are vulnerable.”
The researchers also discussed another study, which found that people do not seek mental health care after natural disasters, because victims usually believe that there are good reasons for any difficult feelings they’re experiencing. “(T)he most common reason for not seeking care was not believing there was a problem requiring treatment,” the researchers wrote.
(Abstract) Psychiatric admissions fall following the Christchurch earthquakes: An audit of inpatient data (Beaglehole, Ben. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. Published online before print December 5, 2014. Doi: 10.1177/0004867414560651)