Glacier Hazards Linked to Prolonged PTSD in Kids

Posted by on Dec 18, 2014

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In June 2013, several days of torrential rains bombarded India’s northern state of Uttarakhand causing devastating glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs), river flooding, and landslides. This event is considered to be the country’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. Packed with Hindu pilgrimage sites, temples, and tourists, Uttarakhand saw entire settlements washed away. Roads were heavily damaged, stranding over 70,000 people and causing food shortages. Local rivers were flooded with dead bodies for more than a week, contaminating water supplies for the survivors.

Based on post-disaster studies, researchers from St. John’s Medical College in Bengaluru, India recently published findings indicating that the Uttarakhand flooding may have provoked sustained levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adolescents in the region. The study, which was conducted three months after the disaster, found a 32 percent prevalence of PTSD and a wide-range of stress levels amongst the youth of one the hardest hit districts, Uttarkashi.

Torrential rain caused unimaginable flooding in Uttarakhand. Many traditional sites and statues were ruined. (Photo: Flickr)

Torrential rain caused unimaginable flooding in Uttarakhand. Many traditional sites and statues were ruined. (Photo: Flickr)

In order to secure these findings, the research team obtained consent from 268 adolescents at a high school in Uttarkashi. They assessed the mental health of the students by administering the Trauma Screening Questionnaire, an PTSD assessment recognized in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere. Another structured questionnaire was used to gather demographic information. The average age of children who participated in the study was 14.8, with slightly more male respondents than female.

Because of a lack of mental health care infrastructure in Uttarkashi, researchers were not able to prove the glacier-related event directly caused the high rates of PTSD amongst the students in this region. However, a similar study of 411 high school students, conducted prior to 2012 in Pune, India found a lower rate of PTSD (8.9 percent for girls, 10.5 for boys). These students had not suffered from a recent natural disaster related event. A meta-study of 72 peer-reviewed articles of US children and adolescents exposed to trauma found an overall rate of PTSD of nearly 16 percent..

A study of 533 tsunami victims in South India found a much higher rate of PTSD, roughly 70.7 percent for acute PTSD and almost 11 percent for delayed onset PTSD. Although there are many factors that may be able to explain the difference in rates, the increased prevalence of PTSD in the Uttarakashi youth certainly signals a link between glacial hazards and PTSD in children.

The loss of a stable lifestyle is a well-known risk factor for PTSD because of an increased feeling of vulnerability to harm. In Uttarakhand, many adolescents experienced this first-hand when their houses were washed away in the floods. (Photo: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection/Flickr)

The loss of a stable lifestyle is a well-known risk factor for PTSD because of an increased feeling of vulnerability to harm. In Uttarakhand, many adolescents experienced this first-hand when their houses were washed away in the floods. (Photo: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection/Flickr)

The researchers from St. John’s Medical College note that past research has been able to establish the relationship in adult subjects between natural disasters and PTSD, “the most prevalent psychological disorder after disaster.” Thus, they claim there is a need for greater recognition of post-disaster stress disorder assessment and for interventions among adolescent victims in developing countries.

“The majority of disaster studies have focused on adults, although adolescents seem to be more vulnerable to psychological impairment after disaster which manifests in a variety of complex psychological and behavioral manifestations,” wrote the authors of the study.

The exact cause of the 2013 Uttarakashi district flooding is contested; however, the unyielding rains contributed to heavy melting of the Chorabari Glacier, 3,800 meters above sea level, and this was a significant catalyst in the event. During the week of June 20, melting at Chorabari, due to above average rainfall, led to the formation of a temporary glacial lake. Further torrential rains caused this lake to swell and overflow, inducing flash flooding and disastrous landslides and mudslides. “Eyewitnesses describe how a sudden gush of water engulfed the centuries-old Kardarnath temple, and washed away everything in its vicinity in a matter of minutes,” according to Down To Earth Magazine.

Glacier-related PTSD risk is not unique to the Gangotri glacier region. There is also evidence and historical precedence to connect these environmental and psychological factors in the Hindu Kush region, the Cordillera Blanca area of Peru, and other high mountain ranges with large glacier dimensions because of their increased risk of glacial hazards. Further, as researchers begin to examine the link between climate change related disasters and the well being of communities, they are finding the increase in disasters will likely instigate greater rates of stress, anxiety, depression, and physical illness along with PTSD in exposed populations. The recognition of the impacts of disasters on mental health is an important complement to earlier work, which has focused almost exclusively on property damage and mortality.

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