Extreme events and disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, cause distress and are associated with some people developing mental disorders. Primary stressors inherent in many disasters can include injuries sustained or watching someone die. The literature recognises the distress which primary stressors cause and their association with mental disorders. Secondary stressors such as a lack of financial assistance, the gruelling process of submitting an insurance claim, parents’ worries about their children, and continued lack of infrastructure can manifest their effects shortly after a disaster and persist for extended periods of time. Secondary stressors, and their roles in affecting people’s longer-term mental health, should not be overlooked. We draw attention in this review to the nature of secondary stressors that are commonly identified in the literature, assess how they are measured, and develop a typology of these stressors that often affect people after extreme events.
We searched for relevant papers from 2010 and 2011 using MEDLINE®, Embase and PsycINFO®. We selected primary research papers that evaluated the associations between secondary stressors and distress or mental disorders following extreme events, and were published in English. We extracted information on which secondary stressors were assessed, and used thematic analysis to group the secondary stressors into a typology.
Thirty-two relevant articles published in 2010 and 2011 were identified. Many secondary stressors were poorly defined and difficult to differentiate from primary stressors or other life events. We identified 11 categories of secondary stressors, though some extend over more than one category. The categories include: economic stressors such as problems with compensation, recovery of and rebuilding homes; loss of physical possessions and resources; health-related stressors; stress relating to education and schooling; stress arising from media reporting; family and social stressors; stress arising from loss of leisure and recreation; and stress related to changes in people’s views of the world or themselves. Limitations in this review include its focus on studies published in 2010 and 2011, which may have led to some secondary stressors being excluded. Assumptions have been made about whether certain items are secondary stressors, if unclear definitions made it difficult to differentiate them from primary stressors.
This is the first review, to our knowledge, that has developed a typology of secondary stressors that occur following extreme events. We discuss the differing natures of these stressors and the criteria that should be used to differentiate primary and secondary stressors. Some secondary stressors, for example, are entities in themselves, while others are persisting primary stressors that exert their effects through failure of societal responses to disasters to mitigate their immediate impacts. Future research should aim to define secondary stressors and investigate the interactions between stressors. This is essential if we are to identify which secondary stressors are amenable to interventions which might reduce their impacts on the psychosocial resilience and mental health of people who are affected by disasters.
Corresponding Author: Dr Sarah Lock, Extreme Events and Health Protection, London, 151 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1W 9SZ. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org