Mental Health Following Separation in a Disaster: The Role of Attachment

Hugh Gallagher, John Richardson, David Forbes, Louise Harms, Lisa Gibbs, Nathan Alkemade, Colin MacDougall, Elizabeth Waters, Karen Block, Dean Lusher, Elyse Baker, Richard Bryant

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    21 Citations (Scopus)


    Short-term separation from close family members during a disaster is a highly salient event for those involved. Yet, its subsequent impact on mental health has received little empirical attention. One relevant factor may be attachment style, which influences patterns of support-seeking under threatening conditions. Individuals (N = 914) affected by the 2009 Victorian bushfires in southeastern Australia were assessed for disaster experiences, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, and attachment style 3-4 years after the fires. Using multigroup structural equation modelling, individuals who reported separation from close family members during the bushfires (n = 471) were compared to those who reported no separation (n = 443). Cross-sectional results indicated that separated individuals had higher levels of PTSD symptoms. Furthermore, attachment anxiety was more strongly positively associated with depression among separated (b = 0.62) versus not separated individuals (b = 0.32). Unexpectedly, among separated individuals, attachment avoidance had a statistically weaker association with depression (b = 0.17 vs. b = 0.35) and with PTSD symptoms (b = 0.06 vs. b = 0.22). These results suggest that attachment anxiety amplifies a negative reaction to separation; meanwhile, for avoidant individuals, separation in times of danger may facilitate defensive cognitive processes.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)56-64
    Number of pages9
    JournalJournal of Traumatic Stress
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2016


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