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Pre-disaster predictions linked to post-disaster psychological outcomes, UCI study finds

First-of-its-kind research conducted in Florida before Hurricane Irma hit

January 4, 2019
Pre-disaster predictions linked to post-disaster psychological outcomes, UCI study finds
“Our results provide a more thorough understanding of how pre-hurricane psychological factors are associated with post-storm adjustment, via media consumption,” says Roxane Cohen Silver, UCI professor of psychological science and senior author of the study. “Forecasted posttraumatic stress responses experienced before community trauma presage both media consumption and subsequent outcomes, with important implications for the media and the public’s mental health.” Jody Ross / R & R Creative Photography

Irvine, Calif., Jan. 4, 2019 — University of California, Irvine researchers are the first to study individuals in the hours before a hurricane hit their community. Their report, published in JAMA Network Open, reveals that individuals who forecast they’d be experiencing posttraumatic stress after the storm were more likely to consume media in advance of the storm and had more negative post-storm mental health outcomes.

“We examined a specific risk factor – forecasted posttraumatic stress responses – in the context of an approaching disaster, Hurricane Irma, to gain a more thorough understanding of how pre-storm psychological factors are associated with subsequent adjustment, via media consumption,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, UCI professor of psychological science and senior author of the study. “We found that pre-storm predictions about post-storm posttraumatic stress were more strongly associated with media consumption and subsequent adjustment to the storm than perceived evacuation status or direct hurricane exposure.”

Previous research by the UCI team linked exposure to disaster-related media coverage with negative mental health outcomes, but specific issues that render individuals vulnerable to this media exposure have been understudied.

Silver, along with Rebecca R. Thompson, a psychological science postdoctoral scholar, and E. Alison Holman, an associate professor in the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, conducted a longitudinal study of a representative sample of more than 1,600 residents across the state of Florida in the 60 hours before Hurricane Irma’s 2017 landfall and resurveyed them about one month later.

Although information seeking is a rational response for community members facing an impending threat, it may – rather than assuaging anxiety – lead to more intense stress for many individuals. As a result, these people may be susceptible to a cycle of increased media consumption and psychological distress in the aftermath.

“Our findings suggest a need to improve hurricane-related risk communications by emergency management and public health officials to the community, due to the importance of the impact that pre-storm psychological factors have on post-storm outcomes,” said Thompson, first author of the report. “Conveying a hazard-specific, appropriate level of risk could mitigate this concern by ensuring that official news reports are not creating undue levels of stress in the population. In addition, public service announcements or other education efforts can be leveraged to inform the community about the potential risk of sensationalized media coverage.”

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

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