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The Psychological Impact of the 2004 Tsunami

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Updated June 23, 2014

On December 24, 2004, the people of South Asia and East Africa were unexpectedly hit by a tsunami. This natural disaster resulted in tremendous destruction throughout these areas. However, Sri Lanka was particularly affected. In Sri Lanka, the tsunami resulted in 31,187 deaths, 4,280 missing people, 23,189 injured people, and the displacement of 545,715 people (You can read a personal account of the tsunami and its impact in this article from the World Health Organization).

As would be expected, this natural disaster had an immediate psychological impact on those who had been exposed to the event in Sri Lanka. It was found that 3 to 4 weeks after the tsunami, 14% to 39% of children had PTSD. And in another study, 41% of adolescents and approximately 20% of those adolescents' mothers had PTSD 4 months after the event.

However, little is known about the long-term psychological effect of the tsunami. The World Health Organization estimated that many people would develop a variety of psychiatric disorders as a result of the event. To examine whether this was the case, the International Post-Tsunami Study Group was developed to determine the long-term psychological effect of the tsunami with the hope of developing effective interventions for people who had been affected by it.

Long-Term Psychological Impact of the Tsunami

The International Post-Tsunami Study Group examined psychological symptoms experienced by people from the Peraliya area (a district in the southern province of Sri Lanka) 20 to 21 months after the tsunami. In Peraliya, approximately 2,000 people died, 450 families became homeless, and 95% of the village was destroyed.

Besides the natural disaster itself, of those interviewed from this area, many experienced other traumatic events:

  • 80% felt as though their life was in danger

  • 51% had a family member die as a result of the tsunami

  • 80% had a friend who lost his/her life

  • 35% had a family member seriously injured

  • 45% had a friend seriously injured

The majority of those interviewed also had tremendous damage to their own property (75%), the property of family members (76%), and/or the property of friends (72%). Their findings also showed that the psychological impact of the tsunami persisted well after the event:

  • Approximately 21% had PTSD

  • Approximately 16% had severe depression

  • Approximately 30% had severe anxiety

  • Approximately 22% had somatic symptoms (or physical symptoms without an apparent medical explanation).

In addition to these psychological difficulties, many of those interviewed also had difficulties in their work, social life, and family life.

How They Coped With This Traumatic Event

People from the Peraliya area used numerous ways to cope with the tsunami. The study group found that many drew from their own inner strength. Others relied on family and friends, hospitals, or their religious and cultural practices and rituals.

Learn More About the 2004 Tsunami

The physical destruction and psychological impact of the 2004 tsunami is undeniable. You can learn more about the 2004 tsunami, its effect, what has been done, and how to help through the World Health Organization Regional Office for Southeast Asia.

Sources:

Hollifield, M., Hewage, C., Gunawardena, C.N., Kodituwakku, P., Bopagoda, K., & Weerarathnege, K. (2008). Symptoms and coping in Sri Lanka 20-21 months after the 2004 tsunami. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 192, 39-44.

Miller, G. (2005). The tsunami's psychological aftermath. Science, 309, 1030.

Neuner, F., Shauner, E., Catani, C., Ruf, M., & Elbert, T. (2006). Post-tsunami stress: A study of posttraumatic stress disorder in children living in three severely affected regions in Sri Lanka. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 19, 339-347.

Wickrama, K.A., & Kaspar, V. (2007). Family context of mental health risk in Tsunami-exposed adolescents: Findings from a pilot study in Sri Lanka. Social Science & Medicine, 64, 713-723.

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