Study examines how people cope after natural disasters

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Study examines how people cope after natural disasters


USC Psychology Honours student Chelle Whitburn

28 January 2014

Research findings by a University of the Sunshine Coast Honours student could lead to improved psychological intervention programs for people traumatised by natural disasters.

Maroochydore’s Chelle Whitburn, 29, recently finished her Bachelor of Social Science (Psychology) Honours project at USC.

Ms Whitburn analysed survey responses from 835 people as part of a collaborative study involving the University of Canterbury’s Associate Professor Dr Janet Carter and USC Lecturer in Clinical Psychology Dr Lee Kannis.

Most of the survey participants had been through either the 2011 Christchurch earthquake or the earlier Queensland floods.

“I identified different types of coping styles that people used after a traumatic event, and found how these styles correlated to their resulting mental health outcomes,” Ms Whitburn said.

People who used problem-solving and help-seeking coping methods had significantly better mental health outcomes than those who used an avoidant coping style, which led to poor mental health.

Ms Whitburn’s supervisor, USC Lecturer in Psychology Dr Rachael Sharman said the research was surprising in its discovery that people’s mental health after a natural disaster was not influenced by any previous traumas experienced.

Ms Whitburn said she had hypothesised that people who had experienced unrelated trauma or multiple traumas, such as childhood abuse, would have higher levels of depression, anxiety or stress after a natural disaster.

“But we found the only factors that had a significant correlation to mental health outcomes after the disaster were individual coping styles,” she said.

“This is encouraging because it means people can seek psychological assistance following any trauma to learn positive coping techniques that will likely improve their long-term mental health.

“It also has implications for the development of psychological interventions to assist people following the experience of trauma.”

Ms Whitburn is now studying a PhD on the prevalence of child trafficking in Australia in order to improve psychological therapies for the children involved.

— Julie Schomberg

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