Measuring mental aftershocks

UC Irvine grad student studies psychological effects of Chile earthquake.

Dana Garfin, UC Irvine

The massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Chile in February 2010 left thousands homeless, caused billions of dollars in damages and triggered a deadly tsunami. The psychological impact of such traumatic events over time is the focus of an ongoing research collaboration between UC Irvine psychologists and Chilean academic and government officials.

The quake — the sixth-strongest on record worldwide — was especially terrifying to children living near the epicenter, says Dana Garfin, a UCI doctoral student in psychology & social behavior who is studying the mental health effects of the disaster on people in the hard-hit city of Concepcion and surrounding areas.

“We found that a lot of these kids were highly traumatized by things such as viewing dead bodies in the street or having a friend or close relative who was seriously injured,” says Garfin, whose work is supervised by Roxane Cohen Silver, UCI professor of psychology & social behavior and a leading expert on stressful life experiences and mental health.

According to Garfin, these children showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress such as nightmares, trouble concentrating and generally feeling on edge or easily startled by things such as loud noises.

Her research includes a study of 1,004 Chilean adults and 117 children who lived in the regions closest to the quake’s epicenter. She partnered with colleagues from Chile’s Universidad de Concepcion and Universidad Andres Bello to conduct face-to-face interviews and assess post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms as well as depression and fear of future disasters.

During a fall 2010 trip to Chile, Garfin conferred with government officials and helped train local graduate students to assist with data collection and interviewing. She also met with first lady Cecilia Morel and her staff.

“She was so warm and welcoming and asked a lot of good, sharp questions,” Garfin says. “I don’t even have my Ph.D. yet, and there I was, sharing my findings with the first lady. It felt like an amazing privilege.”

For Garfin, the chance to participate in a global research partnership has been the highlight of her scholastic career. She intends to return to Chile this winter to pursue her work.

“Chile is an emerging economy, and there’s a lot of interest in advancing science and bringing academics to a higher level,” Garfin says. “This is a country that has suffered through some of the strongest earthquakes on record, and it’s left a mark on the culture.”

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