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The Impact of the Northridge Earthquake on the Mental Health of Veterans: Results from a Panel Study

Dobalian A, Stein JA, Heslin C, Riopelle D, Venkatesh B, Lanto AB, Simon B, Yano EM, Rubenstein LV. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness 2011; 5(S2): S220-S226.

Objectives:

The 1994 earthquake that struck Northridge, California, led to the closure of the Veterans Health Administration Medical Center at Sepulveda. This article examines the earthquake’s impact on the mental health of an existing cohort of veterans who had previously used the Sepulveda Veterans Health Administration Medical Center.

Methods:

From 1 to 3 months after the disaster, trained interviewers made repeated attempts to contact participants by telephone to administer a repeated measures follow-up design survey based on a survey that had been done pre-earthquake. Post earthquake data were obtained on 1144 of 1800 (64%) male veterans for whom there were previous data. We tested a predictive latent variable path model of the relations between socio demographic characteristics, pre-disaster physical and emotional health measures, and post disaster emotional health and perceived earthquake impact.

Results:

Perceived earthquake impact was predicted by pre-disaster emotional distress, functional limitations, and number of health conditions. Post disaster emotional distress was predicted by preexisting emotional distress and earthquake impact. The regression coefficient from earthquake impact to post earthquake emotional distress was larger than that of the stability coefficient from pre-earthquake emotional distress. Post earthquake emotional distress also was affected indirectly by pre-earthquake emotional distress, health conditions, younger age, and lower socioeconomic status.

Conclusions:

The post disaster emotional health of veterans who experienced greater earthquake impact would have likely benefited from post-disaster intervention, regardless of their pre-disaster emotional health. Younger veterans and veterans with generally poor physical and emotional health were more vulnerable to greater post earthquake emotional distress. Veterans of lower socioeconomic status were disproportionately likely to experience more effects of the disaster because they had more pre-disaster emotional distress, more functional limitations, and a greater number of health conditions. Because many veterans use non–Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care providers for at least some of their health needs, future disaster planning for both VA and non-VA providers should incorporate interventions targeted at these groups. (Disaster Med Public Health Preparedness. 2011; 5:S220-S226)

Key Words:

disasters, earthquakes, mental health, veterans, social class