Research explored how a traumatic explosion affected individuals around the world.
“In a disaster, we naturally tend to pay attention toward the most immediate victims, so people who are impacted physically and with physical injuries and damages,” Gaëlle Rached, MD, MSc, said in a new research presentation at the 2022 American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting. But what about the family members who live thousands of miles away?
Rached, Research Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University, shared details about the events of August 4, 2020, when the residents of Beirut experienced a massive explosion as a result of improperly stored ammonium nitrate at the port. More than 200 individuals were killed, and many more were injured and left homeless. Although Rached was in the city and saw firsthand the devastation and trauma, she found herself taken aback by the reports from expat friends and colleagues.
“They heard about the blast from social media, and they tried reaching out to their families, but they weren't able to reach them,” she said. “The lines weren't connecting. They spent hours trying to reach them and thinking and imagining the worst… Can you imagine sitting at home looking at these headlines and wondering what your family is going through? Can you imagine seeing these videos shared over on social media and being stuck abroad due to COVID, not being able to help?”
As she talked with her colleagues about these experiences, she realized that the traumatic experiences were similar, “but somehow a little bit different.”
In general, expatriates are exposed to stressful living conditions, which makes them more susceptible to developing mental health problems, Rached noted. Yet their general mental health is not well studied, and even less is known about such in the context of traumatic events. Thus, Rached and colleagues conducted a 7-month study to examine the impact of the Beirut explosion on expats.
The study consisted of 670 Lebanese citizens or first generation from Lebanese descent who were residing abroad (not in Lebanon) and at least 18 years old. Of that population, 268 experienced the explosion and/or had close family members physically impacted by it. The median age was 31, and the majority (62.2%) were female. Participants came from all over the world, with the highest percentages coming from the United States and France. Study co-authors included Muriel Slim; Dimitri Fiani, MD; Margarita Abi Zeid Daou, MD; and Souraya Torbey, MD.
Participants were screened using the Hopkins Symptoms Checklist and the PTSD Checklist for DSM-5. Preliminary analysis found almost 60% of the 268 who had more personal experience had scores on the PTSD Checklist indicative of PTSD. Furthermore, about 41% of participants screened higher than the threshold for anxiety and depression on the Hopkins Symptom Checklist. Both younger age and female sex were associated with higher scores, even months after the event occurred.
Rached explained their results show expatriates’ mental health are negatively affected by traumatic events in their home countries:
- Months following the traumatic event
- Regardless of how long the expat has been away from their home country
- Regardless of if they experienced the event or witnessed it firsthand
“My simple message would be that there are 200 million expats around the world right now. Look out for expats in your life—your friends, your coworkers, your colleagues—especially when the country is going through traumatic events,” Rached concluded.
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