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Hurricane Ike triggers Dartmouth's work for the National Center for Disaster Mental Health Research

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 10/16/08 • Media Contact: Susan Knapp • (603) 646-3661 

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Team will work in the Galveston area

Fran Norris
Fran Norris (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Dartmouth researchers with the National Center for Disaster Mental Health Research are preparing to visit the Galveston, Texas area on their first field mission in early November to study the impact of Hurricane Ike, which hit in late September.

The NCDMHR, established last year with funding from the National Institutes of Health, aims to study long-term recovery from disasters, focusing on mental health. Hurricane Ike is the first opportunity to deploy the research teams, who will be on the ground in Galveston starting in early November.

The NCDMHR is a six-member consortium, including investigators from Dartmouth Medical School, the University of Michigan, the Medical University of South Carolina, Yale University, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

"We basically want to know what promotes or interferes with resilience to disaster-related stress," said Fran Norris, a research professor of psychiatry and of community and family medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and the Center's director. "We've developed three studies that address a variety of factors, all aimed at understanding how best to help people cope with mental health issues in the wake of a disaster."

According to Norris, field research on the early phase of disaster recovery is scarce, mainly due to the fact that funding comes too late to adequately study the effectiveness of early intervention. With the NCDMHR, funding is already in place, with the NIH releasing money as it's needed. In this case, with Hurricane Ike, the money will be spent on collecting data in the Galveston area starting in about a month.

"The NCDMHR will help overcome funding delays and also assist with another major issue in postdisaster research: studies conducted after unforeseen events frequently lack careful planning in terms of the methods and the research focus.  Advance planning in both of these areas-a feature of this initiative-can help ensure that the research will generate meaningful data on how best to help survivors recover now and in future disasters," said Farris Tuma, Chief of the Traumatic Stress Disorders Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Norris reports that there will be three concurrent studies:

  • One will focus on gaining basic information about the factors that contribute to managing stress, including an assessment of needs for mental health care that can inform local service providers.
  • One will examine the effectiveness of an Internet-based tool that educates participants about common reactions to disaster and provides interactive on-line "self-help" exercises.
  • One looks at the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy for post-disaster distress (CBT-PD), a disaster-specific intervention that involves participants meeting with a licensed and specially trained mental health professional. CBT-PD will be offered to a smaller number of people who are still significantly distressed more than 4-6 months after Hurricane Ike. All participants in these studies will be chosen randomly.

"We hope to learn more about how post-disaster distress changes over time," says Norris. "The results of the study should increase understanding of how biological, psychological, and environmental resources and disaster-related stressors combine to influence how quickly or well people recover. We hope to find that interventions based on sound psychological principles can help individuals and communities recover from disasters more quickly."

Norris said that the scope, severity, and setting of Hurricane Ike converged to create a compelling setting for field research.

"There was serious property damage, many people were displaced, and many residents' lives are likely to be disrupted for quite some time. There was mixed response to pre-event advisories to evacuate, meaning that many people were also exposed to the immediate impacts of the hurricane. These are the types of disasters that raise the most questions about the range of effects and appropriate responses," said Norris.

Dartmouth's NCDMHR partners have all contributed to the preparations to study the mental health impact of Hurricane Ike. Michigan's School of Public Health and Survey Research Center have taken the lead on implementing the research plan, finding participants and assuring the safety of the data. The internet-based study was developed and piloted by Medical University of South Carolina, and the CBT-PD was developed by Dartmouth. Yale will bring genetic and neurobiology expertise during the data analysis process. Oklahoma is leading efforts to develop a child-focused component of the research. The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the newest partner in the consortium, will contribute expertise on disaster psychiatry and help the research teams make connections in Texas.

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