Study: Women pregnant during Superstorm Sandy more likely to have kids with mental health problems

Children who were in their mothers’ wombs during Superstorm Sandy had dramatically higher rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems as preschoolers, a newly released study that included Long Island kids finds.

Children exposed to Sandy in utero were nearly 17 times more likely to have depression, and more than five times more likely to have an anxiety disorder or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, than children who were not, researchers found.

Previous research has shown a connection between maternal stress during pregnancy and a child’s mental health development, and that possibly is a key reason for the high levels of some mental health disorders, said Yoko Nomura, a professor of psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan and Queens College, and the principal investigator for the study.

Sandy hit New York almost 10 years ago, on Oct. 29, 2012, killing 48 New Yorkers and damaging 95,000 homes and other buildings on Long Island. It led to massive flooding, knocked out power and caused major disruptions to Long Islanders’ lives.

“People were uprooted” and many faced significant financial upheavals, Normura said. Some have struggled for years to recover, she said.

A disaster of this magnitude can cause intense stress, including the production of excess amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, which can be passed on to the fetus, she said.

The study evaluated 163 children when they were ages 2 to 5, as well as their parents. The children are now 9 years old.

“We don’t have all the information on what happens to them” since they were evaluated, said Dr. Jeffrey Newcorn, a co-author of the study, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Manhattan.

More research is needed on how children are faring today, and on the reasons for the higher levels of mental health disorders when they were ages 2 to 5, Nomura and Newcorn said.

Most of the 66 children in the study who were exposed to Sandy in utero were from Long Island or Queens. They were compared with 97 children who were born before Sandy or were conceived after the storm.

The study was published Wednesday in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Dr. James Swain, a child psychiatrist and researcher at Stony Brook University who was not involved with the study, said the findings back up previous research that links maternal stress to mental health issues in children.

“Unfortunately I’m not shocked” at the much greater rates of some mental health disorders for children who were in utero during the storm and its aftermath, he said.

Nomura said stress hormones can help people deal with events like a natural disaster, but too much could be detrimental. One possible reason for the children’s mental health problems could be that too much cortisol may have been passed on to the fetus, and the same stress hormones that may have helped the mother get through Sandy could potentially “backfire on your fetus’ neurodevelopmental trajectory,” she said.

The effect on fetuses could vary greatly, Swain said.

“Presumably there are some fetuses that are extremely resilient and will be exactly the same,” he said. “And there are some fetuses that are relatively susceptible to the environment.”

Swain said another reason for mental health issues could be how the child was treated after birth. A child born after a natural disaster may be treated differently, he said.

“Being overly cautious, overly protective may have a downside just as much as giving less attention or less care,” he said.

The study did not analyze whether the child of someone severely impacted by Sandy was more likely to have a mental health disorder than a child of someone less severely affected. But Nomura said severity of impact appeared to increase the risk of mental health issues.

The study found huge differences in how boys and girls were affected. Boys who were in utero during Sandy were much more likely to have ADHD and anti-social and defiant behavior than boys who were not. Girls in utero during Sandy were much more likely to have depression and anxiety than girls who were not.

Part of this could be because some mental health disorders are more common in one sex compared with another, Newcorn said. ADHD, for example, is more common in boys.

“It’s certainly reasonable that it pushed known sex-specific differences with regard to ADHD in a further direction,” he said. “But we don’t know. That’s another great area for future investigation.”

Newcorn said studying kids today who were in utero during Sandy could be especially complicated because of the mental health effects of the pandemic, along with any other factors that are unrelated to Sandy.

Children who were in their mothers’ wombs during Superstorm Sandy had dramatically higher rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems as preschoolers, a newly released study that included Long Island kids finds.

Children exposed to Sandy in utero were nearly 17 times more likely to have depression, and more than five times more likely to have an anxiety disorder or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, than children who were not, researchers found.

Previous research has shown a connection between maternal stress during pregnancy and a child’s mental health development, and that possibly is a key reason for the high levels of some mental health disorders, said Yoko Nomura, a professor of psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan and Queens College, and the principal investigator for the study.

Sandy hit New York almost 10 years ago, on Oct. 29, 2012, killing 48 New Yorkers and damaging 95,000 homes and other buildings on Long Island. It led to massive flooding, knocked out power and caused major disruptions to Long Islanders’ lives.

“People were uprooted” and many faced significant financial upheavals, Normura said. Some have struggled for years to recover, she said.

A disaster of this magnitude can cause intense stress, including the production of excess amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, which can be passed on to the fetus, she said.

The study evaluated 163 children when they were ages 2 to 5, as well as their parents. The children are now 9 years old.

“We don’t have all the information on what happens to them” since they were evaluated, said Dr. Jeffrey Newcorn, a co-author of the study, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Manhattan.

More research is needed on how children are faring today, and on the reasons for the higher levels of mental health disorders when they were ages 2 to 5, Nomura and Newcorn said.

Most of the 66 children in the study who were exposed to Sandy in utero were from Long Island or Queens. They were compared with 97 children who were born before Sandy or were conceived after the storm.

The study was published Wednesday in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Dr. James Swain, a child psychiatrist and researcher at Stony Brook University who was not involved with the study, said the findings back up previous research that links maternal stress to mental health issues in children.

“Unfortunately I’m not shocked” at the much greater rates of some mental health disorders for children who were in utero during the storm and its aftermath, he said.

Nomura said stress hormones can help people deal with events like a natural disaster, but too much could be detrimental. One possible reason for the children’s mental health problems could be that too much cortisol may have been passed on to the fetus, and the same stress hormones that may have helped the mother get through Sandy could potentially “backfire on your fetus’ neurodevelopmental trajectory,” she said.

The effect on fetuses could vary greatly, Swain said.

“Presumably there are some fetuses that are extremely resilient and will be exactly the same,” he said. “And there are some fetuses that are relatively susceptible to the environment.”

Swain said another reason for mental health issues could be how the child was treated after birth. A child born after a natural disaster may be treated differently, he said.

“Being overly cautious, overly protective may have a downside just as much as giving less attention or less care,” he said.

The study did not analyze whether the child of someone severely impacted by Sandy was more likely to have a mental health disorder than a child of someone less severely affected. But Nomura said severity of impact appeared to increase the risk of mental health issues.

The study found huge differences in how boys and girls were affected. Boys who were in utero during Sandy were much more likely to have ADHD and anti-social and defiant behavior than boys who were not. Girls in utero during Sandy were much more likely to have depression and anxiety than girls who were not.

Part of this could be because some mental health disorders are more common in one sex compared with another, Newcorn said. ADHD, for example, is more common in boys.

“It’s certainly reasonable that it pushed known sex-specific differences with regard to ADHD in a further direction,” he said. “But we don’t know. That’s another great area for future investigation.”

Newcorn said studying kids today who were in utero during Sandy could be especially complicated because of the mental health effects of the pandemic, along with any other factors that are unrelated to Sandy.

David Olson covers health care. He has worked at Newsday since 2015 and previously covered immigration, multicultural issues and religion at The Press-Enterprise in Southern California.