The Scarring Effects of Large-Scale Disasters

The scarring effects of large-scale disasters are without dispute. Based on a review of 52 studies, Anthony Rubonis and Leonard Bickman (1991) found that high rates of psychological disorders are common among residents of areas that have been hit by these catastrophic events. In a study of disasters involving 377 counties, a team of researchers found that compared with the years preceding each disaster, the suicide rate increased by 14% after floods, 31% after hurricanes, and 63% after earthquakes. Other events that can have similarly traumatic effects include military combat, car accidents, plane crashes, violent crimes, physical or sexual abuse, and the death of a loved one.

War in particular leaves deep, permanent psychological scars. Soldiers in combat are trained by experience to believe that they have to kill or be killed. They suffer intense anxiety and see horrifying injuries, death, and destruction, all of which leaves them with images and emotions that do not fade. Given this level of stress, it’s not surprising that long after a war is over, some veterans continue to suffer. In World War I, the problem was called “shell shock.” In World War II, it was called “combat fatigue.” Now the problem is seen as a specific form of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is identified by such enduring symp- toms as recurring anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, intrusive bad thoughts, flashbacks, attention problems, and social withdrawal. What’s worse, families are often shattered when a loved one returns from war and seems different, as if still trapped in combat.

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