Background: Over 160 000 children were displaced from their homes after Hurricane Katrina. Tens of thousands of these children experienced the ongoing chaos and uncertainty of displacement and transiency, as well as significant social disruptions in their lives. The objectives of this study were to estimate the long-term mental health effects of such exposure among children, and to elucidate the systemic pathways through which the disaster effect operates.
Methods: The prevalence of serious emotional disturbance was assessed among 283 school-aged children in Louisiana and Mississippi. These children are part of the Gulf Coast Child & Family Health Study, involving a longitudinal cohort of 1079 randomly sampled households in the two states, encompassing a total of 427 children, who have been interviewed in 4 annual waves of data collection since January 2006. The majority of data for this analysis was drawn from the fourth round of data.
Results: Although access to medical care for children has expanded considerably since 2005 in the region affected by Hurricane Katrina, more than 37% of children have received a clinical mental health diagnosis of depression, anxiety, or behavior disorder, according to parent reports. Children exposed to Hurricane Katrina were nearly 5 times as likely as a pre-Katrina cohort to exhibit serious emotional disturbance. Path analyses confirm the roles played by neighborhood social disorder, household stressors, and parental limitations on children's emotional and behavioral functioning.
Conclusions: Children and youth are particularly vulnerable to the effects of disasters. They have limited capacity to independently mobilize resources to help them adapt to stressful postdisaster circumstances, and are instead dependent upon others to make choices that will influence their household, neighborhood, school, and larger social environment. Children's mental health recovery in a postdisaster setting can serve as a bellwether indicator of successful recovery or as a lagging indicator of system dysfunction and failed recovery.
(Disaster Med Public Health Preparedness. 2010;4:S17-S27)