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Learn how natural disasters exacerbate mental health problems to people with existing issues, cause PTSD in survivors, and burnout among rescue aid workers.

After the fires have been put out and the water recedes, first responders often begin battling another crisis — mental health. Research shows the incidences of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and domestic abuse increase during and after these events.

This year’s Call for Code challenge has an added emphasis on healthcare. With the necessary data and resources, developers can create solutions to potentially help individuals with mental illnesses during and after a natural disaster. Developers who are equipped with this knowledge can then use technology to create tangible solutions with their Call for Code submissions. In this post, we provide you with some data and resources to help you think about your solution and how it can potentially help people with mental health issues, whether they are pre-existing or sustained as a result of experiencing a natural disaster.

So what is considered a mental illness? According to the World Health Organization, “depression, bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses, dementia, intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders including autism” are considered mental disorders. While mental health issues are still widely misunderstood and often goes underreported and untreated due to social stigmas, more efforts are in place now to bring awareness to destigmatizing mental health issues. In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that nearly one in five adults live with a mental illness of varying degree. Worldwide, roughly 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability, according to a World Health Organization report.

Mental health and natural disasters

Amidst the chaos of an impending disaster up to the aftermath, mental health can easily be overlooked when aid workers are busy rescuing survivors and providing immediate care for physical emergencies from bodily harm and injury. However, considering the amount of people who already have existing mental illnesses and the fact that these conditions can be exacerbated due to a traumatic event like a natural disaster, mental health should no longer be considered an afterthought.

“Mental health is an integral part of health; indeed, there is no health without mental health.” – World Health Organization

Mental health during and after a disaster

For individuals who already have existing mental illnesses before a natural disaster occurs, experiencing a traumatic event like a natural disaster can exacerbate or worsen their mental state. Losing loved ones or familiar faces, changes to their routine, and witnessing gruesome or destructive scenes can also trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the general population.

What mental health experts say will help

It is important to note that mental health issues that arise as a result of a traumatizing event may last months, or even years, afterwards. Dr. Alexia Suarez, a program manager at Americares Mental Health in Puerto Rico, said her organization could see individuals experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – even after a year and three months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.

Volunteers and rescues workers who suffer from compassion fatigue is a surprising yet serious facet of mental health and natural disasters. Dr. Alexia Saurez explains: “So what I see at this moment, more than depression is burnout, is compassion fatigue. Difficulties managing their day-to-day work given the stress that they are given and the rebuilding of their own lives.”

Children, particularly under the age of 8, are also at a higher risk of developing mental illness, according to the CDC. Their lack of emotional maturity, less life experience, and a lack of understanding can lead to a harder time dealing emotionally with a significant event like a natural disaster. Without proper awareness and education, communities might not be adequately equipped to help children deal with the aftermath.

Though mental health is a complex and multi-faceted situation, the Sendai Framework’s four priorities for action lay out steps to help individuals affected during a natural disaster,including the right training and education for volunteers and workers, adequate preparation, and knowledge about the issue.

Frame your Call for Code solution around mental illness

If you haven’t already accepted the challenge yet, you still have time. You have until July 29 to join the community and submit your solution.

If you are thinking about framing your Call for Code solution around mental health, consider reading this interesting blog from IBM Research on Evolving speech and AI as a window into mental health. AI Services on IBM Cloud™, such as Watson Personality Insights can help you identify psychological traits to aid communication between rescue workers and mental health patients. This code pattern on Training a speech-to-text model, might inspire you to think how the Speech to Text model could help train a large group of volunteers on how to identify and assist individuals who might show symptoms of PTSD.

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