Hurricane Irma has recently passed Miami. Even bigger news is how the Caribbean is doing after Hurricane Maria. Compared to the damage Maria has caused, Irma seems like childplay. This post isn’t about the refugees or the politics behind the rescue efforts. Through this all, I started wondering how different people are affected by natural disasters. Namely, how does it affect depressed people?

It’s known that in places with limited sunlight, rates of depression and suicides are increased. It’s known that depression is associated with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. It’s associated with giving up on life. It’s definitely associated with loneliness, even for people that aren’t physically alone.

Now let’s go back to hurricanes. The weather is unpleasant, it’s gloomy and dark. Most people are indoors, with shutters on and thus no outside light. Many people lose electricity. It’s dark, it’s lonely, it’s sad, and it’s scary. It can feel like the world is crashing down around us.

Let me tell you, those who are depressed know that feeling better than anyone else.

We have people who are already prone to suicidal ideation, and we put them in situations that exasperate their symptoms. It’s not illogical to assume that suicidal rates will go up after hurricanes.

So I started doing some research.

Do suicide rates actually increase?

In 1998, U.S. counties were studied after natural disasters. It was found that within 2 years after a hurricane, suicide rates increased by 31%. In the first year after earthquakes, it increased by 62.9%. And in the four years after a flood, by 13.8%. (Source #1, listed at the end). These are some scary numbers. For those who are curious, the statistics were significant, P<0.001.

Meaning that the difference between these post-natural disaster suicide rates and the national average was too drastic for it to occur by chance.

Why does this happen? 

There’s a whole lot of ideas, not a lot of consensus yet. As with all things in psychology, it depends. Some people encounter increased financial strain, the loss of a home, or the loss of a family member. People feel alone, overwhelmed.

Everything comes crashing down – literally.

They lose the last sense of control they had. They lose the last resources they had. Sometimes they lose shelter, food, family, transportation, ability to work, their health. The list goes on.

Yes, natural disasters make life difficult. But why would it increase suicidal tendencies?

What does the research say?

Maybe because we – as a community – often fail each other.

Does that surprise you? Does it surprise you that we have a role to play in the overall wellness of our community?

A 2013 study found that natural disasters can increase our sense of community. We see examples of this all the time in viral videos. I can immediately remember the strangers who come together to save a family from a sinking car, or to literally lift a car off an unfortunate motorcycle accident. These videos are more than just heartwarming.

This sort of altruism (selfless concern for the wellbeing of others), in the face of disaster, may “work as a protective factor against disaster victims’ suicidal risk” (Source #4).

This isn’t news to us. A book published in 1897 called Le Suicide by Emile Durkheim studied the possible social causes for suicide. It was the first study of the sociological aspect of suicide. It concluded that when “social conditions fail to provide people with the necessary regulation, their psychological health is compromised and the most vulnerable among them commit suicide” (Source #2)

What does this mean?

It means that social engagement is part of this thing we call life. Especially in time of need, in time of crisis, we need each other. At the root of it all, we are social creatures. It’s why we have communities, it’s why there’s treatments such as group counseling and AA meetings. There’s a strength in numbers, especially when we’re in need.

I’ll give you an examples, after the devastating 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, suicide rates decreased for 2 years – primarily middle-aged males. (Source #2). This seems to be explained by the previously mentioned Durkheim theory. Immediately after the disaster, the community rallied together. Social support soared, the people helped each other rebuild. It’s that sense of community we see in these so-called random acts of kindness during disasters. It was enough to affect people on a psychological level. It was enough to save lives.

But what happens when communities are selfish? When, instead of helping each other out, we see violence and looting. We see abuse of elderly and young ones – those that have no choice but to depend on someone else? When we see the ‘every man for himself’ philosophy soar, that’s when we see the suicide rates rise.

According to research, suicide rates can climb for up to four years after a disaster. Who we are as a community is one of the biggest defenses against suicide. Especially in times of crisis when getting the assistance of a mental health professional is difficult.

I can’t begin to tell you of the stories I’ve heard. Of people who were ready to end it and then they experienced a random act of kindness. They got just a little bit of social support and that gave them the strength to keep going.

So, what’s the point?

The point of this whole thing is to remind you that your peers need you. Help out a neighbor, or a stranger at the supermarket. Show compassion as often as you can, I guarantee you’ll never run out. Inspire people to also do the same. That’s the only way to make the world a better place.

If you need a reason to go out and be kind, just remember that social support has been proven to reduce suicide rates. For those of us hit by Harvey, Irma, or Maria – we need all the social support we can get.




1: Suicide after Natural Disasters. Krug et al. 1998.

2: Influence on the suicide rate two years after a devastating disaster: A report from the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. Lishio et al. 2009.

3: Weathering the storm: The impact of hurricanes on physical and mental health. Bourque et al. 2006.

4: Natural disasters and suicide: Evidence from Japan. Matsubayashi et al. 2013.