A Unique Controlled Study of the Effects of a Disaster On Problems Reported by Dutch Youths

There have been numerous efforts to assess the effects of disasters on people’s mental health. However, because disasters are unpredictable and uncontrollable, research is lacking on changes in mental health problems from pre-disaster to post-disaster assessment of people exposed to a disaster versus control groups of similar people who were not exposed to the disaster.

A tragic New Year’s fire at a café in the small Dutch town of Volendam killed 14 youths and injured 250. Coincidentally, some of the youths who were in the café and many of their schoolmates had completed the YSR and questionnaires about substance use 15 months before the disaster (“Time 1”). Youths attending two schools about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Volendam also completed the YSR and the substance use questionnaires at the same time as the Volendam youths.

All three schools served as controls for schools in which health promotion programs were being tested. Five months after the disaster, the students in the three schools completed the YSR and substance use questionnaires a second time (“Time 2”). This provided a unique opportunity to determine whether YSR scores and self-reports of substance use changed differently from Time 1 to Time 2 for the Volendam youths than for youths living 50 miles away. Reijneveld et al. (2003) found that, compared to the youths living 50 miles away, the Volendam youths showed significantly greater increases on the YSR Anxious/Depressed, Thought Problems, and Aggressive Behavior syndromes at Time 2. They also reported significantly greater increases in excessive drinking (i.e., having >4 drinks on at least one occasion during the preceding 2 weeks). The increases in YSR scale scores and in reports of excessive drinking did not differ significantly between the 14 Volendam youths who were in the café and their 77 schoolmates who were not, although the Ns may have been too small to detect differences.

The authors concluded that their “results show that adolescents exposed to a disaster undergo increases in self-reported anxiety, depression, thought problems, and aggression, and a large increase in self-reported excessive use of alcohol” (p. 694).

Reference: Reijneveld, S.A., Crone, M.R., Verhulst, F.C., & Verloove-Vanhorick, S.P. (2003). The effect of a severe disaster on the mental health of adolescents: A controlled study. The Lancet, 362, 691-696.