An expert on posttraumatic stress disorder following disasters of various types, North has studied the survivors of earthquakes, floods and industrial and technological accidents such as plane crashes. North and colleagues also have looked at the survivors of mass shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the U.S. Embassy bombing in Kenya. Currently, she and colleagues are investigating the mental health after-effects of the anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill, and she is conducting preliminary studies of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
North's research has demonstrated that most people do not become psychiatrically ill after disasters, reflecting human resilience. This is not to say, however, that other people are not distressed. North explains that the psychological distress of those who are not psychiatrically ill will need very different mental health interventions after disasters than full psychiatric disorders.
The psychiatric disorder of greatest interest after disasters is PTSD. PTSD is very treatable, but only if those with symptoms seek help. In her studies, North has learned that the people most vulnerable to PTSD and other psychiatric problems following a disaster are those with a history of psychiatric illness.
North and colleagues also have found that those who develop a class of symptoms known as avoidance and numbing symptoms are at high risk for developing PTSD. Avoidance and numbing symptoms include not wanting to think about the disaster, feeling distant or isolated from others, and avoiding reminders of the event. In Oklahoma City, 94 percent of individuals with at least three avoidance and numbing symptoms went on to develop PTSD.
In addition to her work with disaster survivors, North also has studied mental illness in homeless and indigent populations.
North C. Psychiatric effects of terrorism and bioterrorism. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Feb. 17, 2003.