Laura Ramirez-Tlapa â19 with Samuel Byrne, co-coordinator of the public health minor.

Studying the Stress of Natural Disasters

Tyler Senecharles ’20

It was Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, during chemistry lab, when Laura Ramirez-Tlapa ’19 received the news of her family being caught in a devastating earthquake in Mexico. Her family home was 40 minutes away from the epicenter of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake, which took the lives of 370 people and injured more than 6,000. 

Ramirez-Tlapa, an environmental chemistry major who plans to pursue a career in public health, describes being overwhelmed in days that followed, even after ensuring the safety of her family. She recalls looking at social media and seeing friends at home helping out the community by collecting food and clearing rubble. 

“I felt helpless,” she says, about being in Canton during a time when those closest to her needed her the most. Amidst her own struggle to cope, she noticed a much bigger problem in her community that no one was addressing: depression.

“You see mental health problems not being talked about or reported at early stages, and you also see a high suicide rate,” says Ramirez-Tlapa. She realized that many people, in many cases men, in her community were struggling with mental health issues that were being ignored. 

It was this reality that inspired Tlapa’s summer research. Through the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, Tlapa worked on a project titled “Effects of Socioeconomic Status on Mental Health After a Natural Disaster” with faculty mentor Samuel Byrne, assistant professor of environmental studies and co-coordinator of the new public health minor at St. Lawrence.

“It’s obviously affecting people. Its killing people,” she says “and it’s even worse around recovery of natural disasters.” Ramirez-Tlapa compared reports of mental health wellness pre- and post natural disaster. Whereas the majority of her data revolves around Mexico, she also looked into countries with similar incidents of natural disasters and socioeconomic disparities. She hopes the data will shine a light on how these tragic events affect different groups of people. 

Ramirez-Tlapa feels this research is extremely important because of its potential to result in benefits to her community in Mexico as well as other parts of the world. She hopes that her research will encourage others to take a deeper look into mental health in Mexico and natural disasters as a public health issue.

With support from Byrne, the McNair Scholar Program, and St. Lawrence’s focus on public health, Ramirez-Tlapa believes the research could be used to help inform critical changes needed in Mexico and other countries in the aftermath of future natural disasters. 

“I am hoping to just open some eyes,” she says. “By collecting all of this data, it may help with future victims dealing with natural disasters.”

The Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program supports faculty-mentored research projects which help students develop presentations and prepare for graduate school admissions. Throughout the summer, scholars attend Community of Graduate Scholars seminars, where they strengthen their writing skills, work with faculty and staff on graduate school applications, and learn to navigate the interview process.