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Study: Superstorm Sandy increased rates of depression, PTSD, alcohol and substance abuse

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Damage from Hurricane Sandy.
Damage from Hurricane Sandy. - (AARON HOUSTON / NJBIZ)

The physical damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy was visible for anyone to see: towns flooded, homes and businesses destroyed and billions of dollars in rebuilding costs. But the 2012 storm also took an invisible toll: increased rates of depression, post-traumatic stress and alcohol and substance abuse.

That is the conclusion of a new study by East Brunswick-based Healthcare Quality Strategies Inc.

The study, Enhancing Coordination of Behavioral Health Services: Planning Ahead for Future Disasters was funded by Medicare and examines data from October 2011 until September 2013 in the 10 FEMA designated counties affected by the storm: Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Somerset and Union.

Studies from prior disasters have found that victims, especially older adults and those with chronic health conditions, often have an elevated risk for behavioral health issues after a disaster.

“Change cannot take place without an understanding of the community’s needs,” said HQSI Program Manager Suzanne Dalton.  “Our data help them understand the behavioral health needs of their older residents in more detail than ever before. We believe this data can create a foundation for future planning among behavioral health leaders.”

Among the study finding:

  • A 1.2 percent overall increase in depression or related disorders after the storm.
  • A 5.8 percent increase in anxiety disorders; a 7.7 percent increase in post-traumatic stress disorder; and an 8.1 percent increase in alcohol or substance abuse.
  • Hispanics had the highest depression and/or proxy disorder rates followed by whites and blacks, both before and after the storm. Although Asians had the lowest rate both before and after, they experienced the highest increase.


The aim of the study is to identify pockets of need and encourage counties and communities to work together to strengthen behavioral health services for those suffering presently as well as plan for any future disasters.

The nonprofit HQSI said its experts are meeting with county offices on aging, mental health organizations, hospitals and local government leaders to share the data and discuss ways to better coordinate behavioral health services.

HQSI said screening for depression is a new benefit that is now being covered by Medicare, with no deductible or co-insurance payment required from the Medicare beneficiary and HQSI is trying to get the word out to health professions that this new benefit is available.

The study looked at data from Medicare recipients in Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Somerset and Union counties. Data from each county has been updated and is available on the HQSI website, www.HQSI.org.

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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