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Psychological impact of September 2010 and subsequent earthquakes on Christchurch general practice patients

Student:  Matthew Chamberlain
Supervisors:  Associate Professor Dee Mangin, Ms Cerina Altenburg
Sponsor:  The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners

Lay Report

Introduction

The Canterbury earthquakes caused injury, death and damage to homes and workplaces. Most Cantabrians had a normal stress response but recovered with time and support. A smaller group experienced more distress for longer and saw mental health workers. High distress levels can be shown by a high score on a Kessler questionnaire. There are risk factors that might make some people have higher Kessler scores following natural disasters. So far there has been little research into this area, especially on natural disasters with an element of repetition, such as aftershocks.

Aims

  1. To describe the effect of the Canterbury earthquakes on the mental health of people seeing general practitioners
  2. To look at links between patient age, sex, ethnicity and other possible risk factors and levels of distress.
  3. To see any changes in distress levels over time.
  4. To compare our findings with worldwide research on natural disasters, especially those with an element of repetition.

Method

Following the first earthquake in September 2010 a review of natural disaster research was done. This review identified five key risk factors for mental illness following natural disasters. These include past mental illness, past trauma, social support, other stressors and seeing death or injury. Information on these factors was collected by trained counsellors who saw people with earthquake stress. 1476 of the patient assessments were analysed and collected in a database. To check reliability 150 of the assessments were analysed a second time by other researchers.

Results

The study is still in progress, but we have noticed several things so far. Distress levels were similar across genders and ages. Pacific Island and Asian people seemed to have distress levels one or two points higher than others. People from the Southern suburbs, including Sumner and Lyttleton had lower Kessler scores. If someone had none of the five risk factors their distress levels were around 25. If a person had four risk factors their distress levels averaged 34.

Conclusion

Because the study is still in progress our conclusions are not definitive. It should also be noted that collecting data was difficult due to the chaos following the earthquake. But based on the study so far risk factors like poor social support may play a more important role than patient factors like age. However a big part of people’s distress could not be explained by these factors. This highlights the need for a model that takes many risk factors into account. This knowledge could be useful to guide the mental health response in future disasters.