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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.

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Description automatically generatedWomen 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.