Disaster Experience, Social Capitals, and Behavioral Health

Published in: Natural Hazards, Volume 104, pages 959–977 (2020). doi: 10.1007/s11069-020-04199-y

Posted on RAND.org on January 25, 2023

by Vanessa Parks, Lynsay Ayer, Rajeev Ramchand, Melissa L. Finucane

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, and oil spilled from the breached well-head for months, leading to an unprecedented environmental disaster with implications for behavioral health. Disasters are thought to affect behavioral health, and social capital is thought to ameliorate behavioral health impacts after disasters, though empirical evidence is mixed. One possible explanation for the discrepancy in findings relates to the activation of social capital in different contexts. In a disaster context, certain types of social capital may be more beneficial than others, and these relationships could differ between those directly affected by the disaster and those who are unaffected. The goal of this study is to assess the relationships between different forms of social capital (community engagement, trust, and social support) on different behavioral health indicators (depression, anxiety, and alcohol misuse) using data from the first wave of the Survey of Trauma, Resilience, and Opportunity among Neighborhoods in the Gulf (STRONG), a probabilistic household telephone survey fielded 6 years after the onset of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (DHOS). We employ a structural equation modeling approach where multiple social capital and behavioral health variables can be included and their pathways tested in the same model, comparing the results between those who reported experiencing disruptions related to the DHOS and those who did not. Among those who experienced the DHOS, social support was negatively associated with both depression (ß = –0.085; p = 0.011) and anxiety (ß = –0.097; p = 0.003), and among those who did not experience the DHOS, social support was positively associated with alcohol misuse (ß = 0.067; p = 0.035). When controlling for the other social capital variables, social support was the only form of social capital with a significant relationship to behavioral health, and these relationships differ based on whether or not a person experienced the disaster. This suggests that social capital does not have a uniformly ameliorative relationship with behavioral health in the aftermath of disasters.

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