The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 6, 2012

Drury University study could help storm victims recover from disasters

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer

JOPLIN, Mo. — A study of Joplin residents by students from Drury University in Springfield has identified ways that victims of disasters cope afterward, and which ways are helpful and which are harmful.

Drury students asked 87 survivors of the May 22 tornado who sought help at Misti’s Mission in Joplin a battery of more than 100 questions to assess their coping abilities. Each person who was interviewed received a $25 gift card to Wal-Mart for taking part in the study.

The questions were used to ascertain if the survivors were suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or other stress-related maladies.

The team assessed whether survivors were in the storm’s path when it hit, whether they thought they could have been hurt or killed, whether they had family members in the storm, and whether those family members had been hurt or killed. The students also examined how survivors coped in the aftermath of the tornado — be it through exercise, prayer, interaction with friends and family, or the use of drugs and alcohol.

Jennifer Silva Brown, an assistant professor of psychology at Drury, said the goals are to distinguish between those who are struggling and those who are resilient and healthy after a disaster, and to understand which characteristics promote a healthy adjustment to post-disaster life.

The study expanded on one Silva Brown did with survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita while she was a graduate student at Louisiana State University.

For four months, the Drury students worked to enter their data in a computer.

“They were going through each file individually, coded everything twice to ensure there’s no mistake, because we want the most accurate data as possible,” Silva Brown said last week.

“I had students start to pick out themes they wanted to look at, like coping style, social support, post-traumatic stress. Then students and I paired off and looked at trends.”

The initial analysis found that tornado survivors who turned to healthy coping mechanisms — including “positive reframing” (a therapy technique that helps by altering the meaning or value of an event), religion, using emotional support, and acceptance — were the most resilient and reported the lowest levels of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The students also found that tornado survivors who exhibited negative coping mechanisms — including self-blame, denial, substance use and disengagement — experienced the lowest level of resiliency.

Silva Brown pointed to students Blake Herd and Paige Nichols as being “instrumental in finding those coping mechanisms.”

Herd said the study “was actually very interesting; the negative ones worked out just as we thought.”

“While the positive styles are a good thing to have, what really predicts PTSD appears to be using the negative ones,” he said. “That’s what we’re really trying to get health professionals to realize, and work with survivors on those coping methods.”

Nichols said it was her first chance to conduct a study off campus, and it was rewarding to know that it worked and that people found it valuable.

“For me, to go out in the Joplin community and do the research, interview people, get significant results, was awesome,” Nichols said.

Silva Brown added: “It really will help the survivors of the next disaster. Inevitably there will be one, and the more we know now, the better we can prepare the next group.”

Award winner

Drury University students won top honors in the social/behavioral sciences division during a University of Missouri conference for their poster, titled “Coping with the Unexpected: Data from the Joplin Impact Study.” It drew on what they learned after interviewing 87 Joplin residents in the weeks and months after the May 22 tornado.

The students were Blake Herd, Paige Nichols, Alex Duello, Bailey Greene, Morgan Merrell, Melanie Messick and Spencer Prevallet.