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Dr. Seth Schwartz to Study Stress Impact on Puerto Rican Hurricane Maria Survivors in Florida

After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, many families relocated to the United States, particularly to South and Central Florida. These families were traumatized by the Category 4 storm, followed by the stress of an abrupt and unplanned relocation and then by experiences of discrimination and exclusion.

 

Seth Schwartz, Ph.D., professor of public health at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, will conduct a study funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) that will investigate the effects of hurricane-related stress and trauma on Puerto Rican families and their adolescent children, such as alcohol misuse and mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Dr. Schwartz and his research team will also examine the effects of forced migration and of cultural-related stress on youth and their parents.

“We have helped many post-Maria Puerto Ricans with some of their needs, such as housing and employment, but the enormous mental health toll from the storm has yet to be addressed,” said Dr. Schwartz, who is also the director of the Miller School’s Prevention Science and Community Health Ph.D. program. “Post-traumatic stress can last for years if it is not identified and treated, and in many cases, it gets worse over time.”

The project is centered around three objectives. The first is to address the public health needs of families in the aftermath of the storm, and after an unplanned relocation and adjustment to a new cultural context, and to obtain more information on their characteristics, experiences, and needs. The second would examine the predictive effects of trauma and cultural stress on family functioning, alcohol misuse, and mental health conditions to inform intervention development in South and Central Florida. The third would be to ensure that the results of the study are applied to real-world practice.

Preliminary research has indicated that while it has been more than a year since the hurricane, many of these families plan to stay in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. Dr. Schwartz and his team have previously found that Puerto Rican survivors who relocated to Central and South Florida experienced higher levels of mental stress than those who remained on the island.

The goal of the study, said Dr. Schwartz, is to identify the mental health and alcohol use burden that Hurricane Maria and subsequent stressful experiences have placed on these displaced families.

“This area of research is important because it helps us to direct appropriate and necessary services to traumatized families who have likely not received the mental health services that they need,” said Dr. Schwartz. “The work also allows us to begin studying crisis migration, which is the sudden and unplanned relocation to a new country or region following or because of natural disasters, wars, government repression, and other traumatic or difficult circumstances.”

The study will recruit and follow 500 post-Maria Puerto Rican families with adolescents – 250 in Central Florida and 250 in South Florida – and follow them for three years and six assessment points. Researchers will access their trauma and stress related to the hurricane and from relocation, their experiences of discrimination and exclusion, as well as their mental health symptoms and alcohol use. Information gathered from the study will be used to develop interventions to help Puerto Rican Hurricane Maria survivors in Florida.

“Our prior research tells us that there is an extreme mental health burden, and high rates of alcohol use, among post-Maria Puerto Ricans,” said Dr. Schwartz. “There are tremendous unmet mental health needs in this population, and our goal is to identify and address those needs.”

Dr. Schwartz will serve as co-principal investigator on the project alongside Dr. Mildred Maldonado-Molina from the University of Florida and Dr. Christopher Salas-Wright from Boston University. Father José Rodriguez, rector of Iglesia Episcopal Jesús de Nazaret in Orlando, and Luis de Rosa, president of the South Florida Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, will also play key roles in the study.

Written by Amanda Torres
Published on August 28, 2019