Social Capital and the Mental Health Impacts of Hurricane Katrina: Assessing Long-Term Patterns of Psychosocial Distress

March 2014 (VOL. 32, NO. 1)

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Hurricane Katrina was the most costly disaster in U.S. history, creating severe physical and mental health impacts among the population exposed along the Gulf Coast. The physical and economic assessments have been the focus of many previous studies with inadequate attention paid to the long-term emotional and psychosocial toll on survivors. This study evaluates the socio-demographic and contextual variations in Katrina’s depressive and psychosocial stress impacts among a random sample of survivors in the most devastated counties/parishes of Louisiana and Mississippi three years after the storm. Our primary objective was to assess the influence of social capital, or lack of it, for mental health outcomes. Using a comprehensive random digit dialing telephone survey data-set, descriptive and multivariate statistical techniques including differences of means, factor analysis, multivariate discriminant analysis, and Ordinary Least Squares regression analysis, were utilized to test hypotheses derived from social capital theory. Strong support was found for the hypothesized relationships; empirical evidence clearly shows that lack of social capital predicts both depression and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. The results further reveal that Katrina’s mental health impacts are not evenly distributed. Depression, stress, and psychosocial impacts are skewed toward African Americans, older adults, women, unmarried adults, less educated, and people with weak social networks. Theoretical and applied policy implications of these findings are discussed for understanding lingering mental health problems three years post-Katrina.