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Flooding and Mental Health

While the devastation to buildings and infrastructure as a result of flooding is easily observed, the after effects of flooding on those who have to live and deal with the event are not as easily recognised.

When handling stress and trauma, emotional durability and mental resilience can vary considerably from person to person, and when a community is flooded the mental health and wellbeing of individuals can often suffer as a result. As many of those who experience flood events for the first time will testify, it’s not the flood event itself but rather the months and years that follow which take their toll; physically, emotionally and mentally.

Following the 2007 floods, the Health Protection Agency, King’s College London and Lancaster University carried out research studies on the psychosocial impacts and effects on mental health within flood affected communities. While there were some non-flood related factors which contributed to the increase in psychological distress resulting from events, such as the level of pre-existing social deprivation, the direct impacts of the floods on those affected were very real and complex.

Following flood events, families are often displaced, parents can be left without work and income, and the road which lies ahead in dealing with insurance companies and loss adjusters is nearly always full of stress and disruption. Although there have been a number of studies looking at the health impacts in the first months following a flood event, traditionally there has been limited evidence available to help with understanding the lasting effects and impacts of floods over subsequent years.

In 2015 Public Health England began undertaking a ‘longer-term’ study into the health and wellbeing of those impacted by the winter floods of 2013/14. Target groups consisted of those flooded, disrupted and unaffected, with participants monitored and surveyed annually over many years with interim findings helping to inform future changes in policy and practice.

Whilst coping mechanisms are an important aspect of human nature they are not always positive or constructive, and traumatic and life disrupting events can easily lead to greater use and reliance on prescription medication, such as anti-depressants and recreational drugs including tobacco, alcohol and other substances. According to Public Health England’s findings, those who experienced the internal flooding of liveable areas were approximately 6-7 times more likely to develop depression, anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder 12 months on than those in the ‘unaffected’ group. With the depth of flood water impacting directly on the amount of damage caused to a property, the study also found that a flood depth of over a metre increased the likelihood of depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder by 15x, 11x, and 18x respectively.

Although new clinical conditions and mental health disorders can develop in a small number of those affected, the psychological trauma of the recovery process can exacerbate pre-existing anxiety and depressive disorders in the months following floods. The elderly, including those relying on social care and support services, were also affected as a result of the upset and disruption caused by displacement.

For many, though, returning home to a newly recovered and refurbished home does not bring the solace and security they deserve. For some, it can feel like moving back into a different life altogether. With new fixtures and furniture in place, the familiarity of their home and possessions no longer exists. The developing effects of post traumatic stress can bring sleepless nights and bouts of anxiety and hypervigilance, particularly during storms and periods of rainfall.

The impacts of flooding on children can also be quite significant. To children, their home and guardians represent the very foundation of safety and security; something which plays a critical role in their psychological development. While it is easy for children to make emotional attachments to their favourite toys and possessions, it is not always easy for them to understand the health implications of why contaminated items must be thrown away.

A collaborative research project called ‘Children, young people and flooding: recovery and resilience’ was undertaken by Lancaster University and Save the Children: http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/cyp-floodrecovery/. The project worked with groups of children who experienced severe floods and sought to understand, amongst other things, childrens’ experiences of floods, the impact on their lives, and how they can be best supported. School education programmes in flood affected communities are helping to raise awareness and understanding of floods and flood related issues, helping children to make sense of events in a constructive way.

Those who have been affected by flooding and require further support should contact their GP or NHS 111 in the first instance. There are also a number of organisations such as MIND who can provide advice and guidance on accessing support services as well as a range of mental health related information.

You can contact MIND directly on 0300 123 3393 or by visiting www.mind.org.uk

 

Sources: Public Health England, Lancaster University, National Archives, plos.org

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