Helping Children Traumatized by Katrina
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
I'm Susan Stamberg.
The Louisiana Department of Education is sending teams of mental health workers to schools across the state. It's part of a plan to deliver psychological first aid to children displace by the hurricane. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY reporting:
By early next week, social worker Michelle Manning intends to be back on the job. Her expertise is working with children suffering from trauma-induced stress. And now the state of Louisiana is asking her to train its teachers.
Ms. MICHELLE MANNING (Social Worker): They are our eyes and ears, and they are wonderfully in tune with the children.
AUBREY: So teachers are ideally positioned to identify signs of trouble. What Manning will do is train them to recognize them red flags that aren't so intuitive.
Ms. MANNING: Teachers notice the kids that are acting out. They notice the ones that are crying or are, you know, aggressive. They may not tend to notice the quiet child who's in the back of the room not making a fuss and being very obedient. And so we would tend to stress, keep an eye on that child to make sure that this is normal behavior for them and not a change in behavior since the trauma occurred.
AUBREY: It's tips like these that will help teachers become sort of first responders for psychological aid. Some training will take place face to face, but given logistical challenges and the limited number of trauma teams, the state is also planning a series of video teleconferences that reach every parish. Child psychologist Joy Osofsky is working round the clock with state officials to coordinate the training.
Ms. JOY OSOFSKY (Child Psychologist): Well, what we're hoping with the video conferencing is that it won't just be a didactic presentation but that it'll be interactive so that they can ask questions, they can express their concerns.
AUBREY: And teachers can tap into the network of mental health experts and even refer students they fear are in trouble. Osofsky will also recommend classroom activities aimed at helping children process their own experiences with the hurricane. For instance, memory booklets where students write narratives and draw pictures then share stories.
Ms. OSOFSKY: So instead of the typical response that some people have to trauma in terms of avoidance and not talking about it, it'll be a way to allow them to talk about it in a supportive way. And this will also help the teachers and others learn if there are some children who are particularly distressed.
AUBREY: Osofsky says memory books in some cases could have the unintended effect of spreading anxiety throughout the classroom. And in some instances, the kids' scariest accounts of evacuation or stories of losing a loved one should not be shared with everyone. With so much discretion left to teachers, they'll need lots of backup. One resource is the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. Alan Steinberg of UCLA is associate director.
Mr. ALAN STEINBERG (Associate Director, National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, UCLA): We are putting together a cadre of experts and consultants that will actually be able to go on site and be available to telephone consultations.
AUBREY: Steinberg says the idea is to borrow from the mental health interventions that psychologists know work. The challenge, he says, is to streamline them for rapid response. Whether this will be as effective is unknown, but state officials seems committed to trying. Louisiana Department of Education Assistant Secretary Donna Ganey says the obstacle now is that there's nowhere near enough money in the budget.
Ms. DONNA GANEY (Assistance Secretary, Louisiana Department of Education): But we are not going to let that stop us. Our Office of Mental Health is working right along with us to try to identify some funds so that we can make this happen.
AUBREY: Ganey is pushing the effort as preventive health. The theory is that early intervention and attention to mental health can prevent many cases of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
STAMBERG: And a quick correction. A report yesterday on medical care should have said there are four hospitals in New Orleans where people can go for medical attention.