Women, Disasters and Resilience
Do women experience disasters, including planning, preparedness, response and recovery, differently than men? That is the question examined in a new report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The report looks at the long-held notion in disaster behavioral health research that “women are more vulnerable to adverse mental health consequences of disaster than are men.”
While women are less likely than men to be prepared for disasters, they are more likely to have greater awareness of hazards in their area, according to research from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A study of more than 2,500 individuals following flooding in Serbia found that men seemed to be more confident in their abilities to cope with flooding, while women displayed a deeper understanding of the events.
Women are much more likely than men to experience depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a catastrophic event. However, these differences mirror the differences between men and women in the overall rates of depression and PTSD in the general population. Women are less likely than men to experience alcohol or other substance use disorders following a disaster, as they are in the general population. Research has not shown clear differences in the level of disaster-related distress experienced by men and women.
Violence against women is also a concern following disasters. In a study following Hurricane Katrina, women experienced a much greater increase in psychological victimization than men. Women also experienced an increase in physical victimization, while men experienced no change. Interpersonal and gender-based violence following a disaster are associated with greater risk of mental illness, including depression and PTSD.
Protective and risk factors
Having social support and a strong sense of community may be protective against depression and other mental health concerns. A study of mothers of young children who survived Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav found those with greater social support had better mental health. Low social support, unemployment and less income may be risk factors for depression after disaster in women. A study of women who were pregnant and survived Katrina found poor social support was associated with higher levels of depression, PTSD, anxiety, and stress.
Following a disaster, some people experience a phenomenon called posttraumatic growth—the positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. People may experience a greater appreciation of life, strengthening of close relationships, increased compassion and altruism, new possibilities or a purpose in life, or enhanced spiritual development or creativity. Some research has found that women of color, and especially Black women, are more likely to experience posttraumatic growth compared to white women and men.
A study following an earthquake and tsunami in Chili found that while vulnerability increases following a disaster, resilience can potentially counteract women’s vulnerability. The researchers suggest that “resilience can be a pathway to produce long-term changes in gender relations and empower women in the context of disasters.”
Other research has identified factors that disadvantage women in the event of disasters. A study of two catastrophic events in Texas found that while women tend to take the risks of natural disasters far more seriously than men, their concerns are often not heard, including by the agencies providing assistance. The research also found that traditional gender roles tend to resurface in the aftermath, often leaving women out of decision-making.
“If your perspective is not taken into consideration and you feel isolated, that can impede your mental health recovery,” study co-author Melissa Villarreal said in a statement. “If we can put racial and gender forms of bias aside and listen to all the people tell their stories about what is affecting them, that could go a long way in helping communities recover.”
- SAMHSA. Women and Disasters. October 2020. Disaster Technical Assistance Center Supplemental Research Bulletin.
- Villarreal, M., Meyer, M.A. Women's experiences across disasters: a study of two towns in Texas, United States. Disasters, Volume 44, Issue2, April 2020, Pages 285-306.
- Marshall, L. When natural disaster strikes, men and women respond differently. CU Boulder Today. University of Colorado Boulder. Sept. 19, 2019.
- Harville, E.W., et al. Combined effects of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav on the mental health of mothers of small children. J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2011 May;18(4):288-96.
- Vladimir M., et al. The Role of Gender in Preparedness and Response Behaviors towards Flood Risk in Serbia. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Dec; 15(12): 2761.
- Kaufman, SB. Post-Traumatic Growth: Finding Meaning and Creativity in Adversity: Resilience and strength can often be attained through unexpected routes. Scientific American, April 20, 2020.