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How Power Outages Can Affect Mental Health

How Power Outages Can Affect Mental Health
From TIME - October 4, 2017

Its been two weeks since Hurricane Mariaswept through Puerto Rico, plunging it into darkness. Today, around 95% of Puerto Ricos electric grid remains down, and that outage could last for months.

Being without power comes with obvious physical health risks,especially for hospitals and nursing homes, which rely on power for dialysis and oxygen machines, refrigerated insulin medication and more. Being in the dark impairs safety and security, too. But blackouts also take a lasting toll on peoples mental health, experts say. This often-ignored issue is slowly gaining more recognition in disaster response.

Dr. Shao Lin, a professor in the department of environmental health sciences at the University at Albany and her research team are studying how power outages impact community health, including mental health. Her 2016 study on the impact of Hurricane Sandy found that impacted areas of New York experienced extended blackouts and disruptions to public transportation and health care. The impact on mental health was substantial, she concluded; there was a significant increase in emergency room visits for substance abuse problems, psychosis, mood disorders and suicides throughout the city.

MORE: We Deserve More Help. Puerto Ricans Rely on Each Other While Waiting for Aid

The longer the power outage continued Manhattan largely recovered in five days and Nassau County was without power for about two weeksthe greater the increase in emergency room visits. Communities with lower socioeconomic status felt the greatest toll. Bronx countywhere 30% of residents live in povertyexperienced a 782% increase in risk for mental health emergency room visits during the blackout after Hurricane Sandy.

New York City prepared well for Sandy, says Lin, who expects to see "severe problems" in the mental health of people in Puerto Rico throughout the power outages.

MORE: How the U.S. Turned Its Back on Puerto Rico

There are many reasons why mental health events increase during power outages, including stress from the shutdown of necessities like food storage, transportation, life support devices and more. It can also increase loneliness and cut people off from one other. A power outage cuts out communication and can cause social isolation, says Yi Lu, a graduate research assistant in environmental health sciences at the University at Albany who works with Lin. Especially for groups like the elderly, isolation can cause mental stress."

Hyun Kim, an assistant professor in the division of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota who has studied the long-term impacts of Hurricane Sandy and the World Trade Center attacks, says the stress of the chaoslike living in the darkcan deteriorate mental health.Such extreme living conditions lead to fear and anxiety, which are often contagious among the affected communities, and this phenomenon disproportionately impacts those who are exposed to more severe living conditions," he says.

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