Inequality in the Effects of Disaster Trauma in Women

Over the past decade, the U.S. has seen an increase in large scale disasters both man-made and natural, from 9-11-01, the Virginia Tech and the Fort Hood Shootings to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike. These events have the potential to create states of acute emotional distress in people who are exposed to the disasters as well as the threat of developing a psychological disorder, such as posttraumatic stress, in certain high risk populations.

From the mental health perspective, trauma is defined as the psychological effects of events that disrupt the emotional equilibrium of an individual causing stress and grief or; the collective trauma that causes damage to the bonds and social fabric of communities. The primary experience of trauma is that of exposure to life threatening events such as physical and psychological abuse, auto accidents, disasters, torture and war. Yet, because each individual has their own unique personality traits developed as a result of genetic or biological make up as well as life experiences that they bring to each event, their perception significantly influences their actual experience of traumatic events. Thus, there are an extensive number of variables that have the potential to determine how any one trauma affects the individual emotionally and psychologically. This broad scope of possibilities also influences ‘collective trauma,’ which refers to the effects of an event on a particular family, group or community. This article talks briefly about how women are affected as they experience disaster trauma based on their unique experience of belonging to this gender group.

It is important to note here that the majority of people exposed to traumatic events have sufficient internal strengths which allow them to recover without any type of crisis intervention or formal mental health treatment. This characteristic is generally referred to as resilience, which is defined as the ability to return to, bounce back or recover from illness or adversity. While resilience is most often innate, it can also be accomplished with learned coping skills, cognitive tools and other emotional supports that can enhance recovery.

Despite the innate ability to bounce back and continue to function as one did prior to the experience of a disaster trauma, women are at a disadvantage. In an extensive study of 60,000 disaster victims, Norris, et al., (2002)1 reported that the variable of female gender consistently increased the likelihood of adverse outcomes. We do not know exactly why this is the case but suggest here possible reasons.

First, in emergency situations, women put the care of others ahead of themselves (Nomura & Chemtob, 2009)2. As primary caretakers, women most often have the responsibility for children and other family members who require supervision and physical care. The stress and pressure that many women experience as they try to help their children and in many cases, also a frail parent while attempting to rally themselves back to normalcy may create obstacles to their own emotional recovery.

Research informs us that serious emotional disorders such as posttraumatic stress develop in approximately 7 percent of women as a result of trauma (Kessler et al., 1996)3. This is 4% higher than rates for men excluding those involved in war (where there is high exposure to violence, death and continued imminent threat of death). Again, we do not know the causation for this disproportionate number of women who suffer with posttraumatic stress disorder, but we do know that social support-connectedness to family and friends-as well as early intervention and treatment when needed, do help.

Social supports are well known to assist individuals and groups in the aftermath of disasters (Norris, et at., 2002)4. Overall, women have been reported to have more positive network orientations (Kaniasty& Norris, 2000). These networks should be of assistance to women in the post disaster recovery process, yet when Kaniasty and Norris (2000) evaluated the role of ethnicity in relation to help seeking in a population of disaster affected women, they found that social supports were not utilized. In a population of low income African American women who had easy access to highly developed networks of relatives and friends that were seen as willing to provide support, the researchers found that these women asked for assistance infrequently. Additionally, Hispanic women reported receiving the least emotional and tangible support overall.

The unique stressors that women experience place them at higher risk for experiencing the negative effects in the aftermath of disasters. It is likely that women will continue to put the needs of others ahead of their own and as such, the social networks that do exist for women need to be taken advantage of. As with all disaster survivors, women need to look out for and offer each other support especially in circumstances such as the aftermath of a disaster.

Disaster crisis counselors and mental health professionals should be aware of one of the basic principles of disaster assistance as identified in the Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide (2006), ‘connecting with social supports.’ When and where appropriate, disaster survivors should be encouraged to reach out to each other as well as family members and friends who are perceived as supportive. If women seem hesitant to ask for help, turn the example around and ask if they would offer support to others as a way of letting them know that it is ok to ask for assistance. Disaster counselors may assist in bringing women survivors together through homogeneous groups that address their concerns, such as ‘talking to children about disasters,’ or ‘how to return to normal family activities post disaster’ as examples. In addition, women survivors should also be made aware of the professional services that are available to address the emotional pain of traumatic events. Resources may be found at: and Providers who wish to become trained in post disaster response can take the Psychological First Aid training online for free CEU’s at


  1. Norris, F. H., Friedman, M.J., Watson, P.J., Byrne, C.M., Diaz, E. &Kaniasty, K. (2002). 60,000 Disaster Victims Speak: Part I. An Empirical Review of the Empirical Literature, 1981–2001.Psychiatry 65(3) Fall 2002
  2. Nomura, Y. & Chemtob, C. (2009). Effect of Maternal Psychopathology on Behavioral Problems in Preschool Children Exposed to Terrorism. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 163(6):531-539.
  3. Kessler, R.C., Sonnega, A., Bromet, E., Hughes, M., & Nelson, C.B. (1996). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey.Archives of General Psychiatry, 52, 1048-1060.
  4. Kaniasty, K. & Norris, F. (2000). Help seeking comfort and receiving social support: The Role of  Ethnicity and Context of Need. American Journal of Community Psychology; Aug 2000; 28, 4; Research Library pg. 545.

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