Puerto Rico Continues to Struggle from Devastation Caused by Hurricane Maria. Now a Drexel Team is Studying the Long-term Health Impact.

More than a year after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, investigations continue into the impact of the devastating storm. The United States Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology is assessing damage to buildings and infrastructure. The findings are expected to also yield insights to inform the much-disputed death toll, which the Puerto Rican government estimates to be nearly 3,000 people. 

Despite some aid, parts of the U.S. territory continued to lack clean running water, nutritious food, important roads and bridges, and vital health care many months after the deadly disaster. The island’s poor infrastructure and struggling economy before the storm, and a limited institutional response, are widely cited as major reasons for the slow recovery.  

Supported by a $3.2 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) of the National Institutes of Health (R01 MD013866), Alex Ortega, PhD, professor and chair of Health Management and Policy in the Dornsife School of Public Health, nowleads a team of researchers from the school and the University of Puerto Rico that is assessing psychiatric and substance use disorders among Puerto Rican residents after Hurricane Maria made landfall. 

“We know from many studies that natural disasters can fuel a range of mental health diagnoses, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, major depression, and suicidal thoughts,” saidOrtega. “A dangerous hurricane can also exacerbate many already-existing public health issues as well.”

The study is the first to look at the long-term mental health of Puerto Rican residents after Hurricane Maria hit in a sample representative of the entire island, including how personal, family, and neighborhood factors may be involved. 

This work began a year before the hurricane made landfall, thanks to data from the Puerto Rico Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services Administration (MHAASA), which surveyed more than 3,000 adults on the island to document a range of psychiatric disorders among residents. 

Once the next round of survey data on more than 3,000 adults is collected, they will compare it to the original results collected during the year before Maria made landfall to find out how mental health disorders and substance abuse may have changed after the hurricane hit.

The group’s findings are also expected to yield insights into what factors influence a change in the number and severity of mental health disorders, such as recovery efforts and lack of reliable electricity. They also aim to better understand what makes some individuals more mentally resilient than others through the storm. 

“We are gathering a clearer picture of the trauma and mental stress experienced by residents of Puerto Rico as a result of this tragedy,” Ortega said. “Health systems remain deeply insufficient to care for the rising mental health needs of nearby residents.”

The team hopes that the findings will inform more targeted support for recovery on the island.

Media interested in speaking with Ortega should contact Greg Richter at gdr33@drexel.edu or 215.895.2614.   

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