Using data from a longitudinal online survey, researchers found that disaster-related media exposure affected the link between forecasted post-traumatic stress and psychological outcomes in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
These findings indicate that predicted post-traumatic stress symptoms and storm-related media coverage before a community trauma may impact subsequent mental health outcomes, according to results published in JAMA Network Open.
Prior research has shown that exposure to disaster-related media coverage is linked to negative mental health outcomes, but no research exists on consumption of media during and shortly after an impending natural disaster, according to Rebecca R. Thompson, PhD, from the department of psychological science, University of California, Irvine, and colleagues. Hurricane Irma, which hit the United States in 2017, provided a unique research opportunity, they wrote.
“Media provided 24-hour sensationalized coverage, which described the possibility of ‘a catastrophic hit’ and ‘worse than feared’ destruction,” Thompson and colleagues explained. “The media broadcasted this coverage nationally, not just locally, thus expanding the disaster’s reach beyond directly affected communities. This storm also had an uncertain path, which shifted across Florida in the days preceding landfall. Indeed, at one point, the entire state was threatened.”
In their study, the investigators assessed the forecasted post-traumatic stress responses and media coverage as risk factors for negative mental health outcomes in the context of media coverage of Hurricane Irma using data from longitudinal surveys of a representative sample of Florida residents. Respondents completed two online surveys before the hurricane made landfall (wave 1) as well as 1 month later (wave 2). Researchers used these responses to measure post-traumatic stress responses, psychological distress, functional impairment and worry about subsequent results.
Overall, 1,478 participants comprised the final weighted sample, which estimated U.S. Census benchmarks for Florida, according to Thompson and colleagues.
Using structural equation modeling, researchers found that exposure to hurricane-related media coverage (beta = 0.21; 95% CI, 0.11-0.31) and forecasted post-traumatic stress (beta = 0.44; 95% CI, 0.35-0.52) were significantly linked to post-storm psychological adjustment. Furthermore, analyses revealed the link between forecasted post-traumatic stress and adjustment post-hurricane occurred via exposure to hurricane-related media coverage (beta = 0.07; 95% CI, 0.05-0.08).
The investigators also found that previous mental health diagnoses were linked to wave 1 forecasted post-traumatic stress responses (beta = 0.16; 95% CI, 0.08-0.24) and wave 2 psychological adjustment (beta = 0.2; 95% CI, 0.12-0.29). In addition, perceived evacuation zone status was significantly tied to wave 1 forecasted post-traumatic stress responses, but not hurricane-related media exposure.
“Our results have important implications for the news media and emergency management and public health officials,” Thompson and colleagues wrote.
“That prestorm psychological factors have a stronger association than perceived evacuation zone status or direct hurricane exposure with storm-related media consumption and subsequent adjustment suggests a need to improve hurricane-related risk communications for the public,” they continued. “Communicating a hazard-specific appropriate level of risk could mitigate this concern by ensuring that sensationalized reports are not creating undue levels of prestorm stress in the population, which may contribute to more negative expectations about subsequent psychological responses.” – by Savannah Demko
Disclosure: Thompson reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.