Growing up in the shadow of Chornobyl: adolescents’ risk perceptions and mental health
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Despite long-term research on risk perceptions of adults after ecological disasters, little is known about the legacy for the generation exposed to toxic elements as infants. This study examined Chornobyl-related risk perceptions and their relationship to mental health in adolescents raised in Kyiv in the aftermath of the accident.
Risk perceptions, 12-month DSM-IV major depression (MDD)/generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and current symptomatology were examined in 265 evacuee adolescents, 261 classmate controls, and 327 population-based controls 19 years after the accident. Competing risk factors, including maternal risk perceptions and MDD/GAD, were taken into account.
Significantly more evacuees (48.7%) than controls (33.4–40.0%) reported at least one negative perception of Chornobyl; 18.1% of evacuees versus 10.0-12.8% of controls reported 2–4. In contrast, 75.7% of evacuee mothers versus 34.8–37.6% of controls endorsed 2–4 negative perceptions. In the unadjusted analyses, adolescents’ perceptions were associated with both MDD/GAD and symptomatology. After adjusting for competing risk factors, their perceptions were associated with symptomatology only (p < 0.01). Among the competing risk factors, gender, self-esteem, life events, and peer support were significantly associated with MDD/GAD. These measures, along with quality of parental communication, father belligerence when drunk, and maternal MDD/GAD, were significantly associated with symptoms.
More evacuee teens reported negative risk perceptions than controls, but these perceptions were only modestly associated with mental health. Instead, the strongest risk factors comported with epidemiologic studies conducted in other parts of the world. Research is needed to determine whether children raised in the aftermath of other ecological disasters demonstrate similar resilience.
KeywordsRisk perception Chornobyl Disaster Mental health Adolescents
This study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (MH51947). The authors thank Charles Webb for directing the field work; Vladimir Paniotto, for designing the sampling methodology for the population-based control group, and the interviewers and programmers at the Kiev International Institute of Sociology; Evgenii Golovakha and Natalia Panina for their work on developing the protocol; Margaret Bloom, Anna Geisherik, and Svetlana Stepukhovich for their careful translations and back-translations; and most of all, the participants who graciously gave their time to this project.
Conflict of interest statement
None of the authors has involvement with organizations with a financial stake in this research.
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