Adults, Children Dealing with Katrina Differently

When it comes to mental health, children in New Orleans appear to be doing better in the wake of Hurricane Katrina than many adults — which leads to the question: How do children and adults differ in terms of their experience of trauma?

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And as U.S. officials focus on preparing for a possible flu pandemic, victims are still recovering from the Hurricane Katrina disaster. A large number of children around the Gulf Coast appear to be having trouble adjusting to life after the storm.

NPR's Alix Spiegel reports.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

Until November, James Truding(ph) was his normal self, a 10-year-old boy unmarked by Katrina. His home north of New Orleans was only mildly damaged. His turn as Abe Lincoln in the school play passed without incident. There was no sign, really, that his evacuation or temporary dislocation had bothered him.

And then, says his mother Karen Truding, came November.

Ms. KAREN TRUDING: He called me from school in a panic. Mom, I really don't feel well. You have to come pick me up.

SPIEGEL: When Trudy arrived, she found her young son in the midst of a literal panic attack, repeating the same thing over and over again.

Ms. TRUDING: It was almost like a broken record: the world is coming to an end.

SPIEGEL: In the days, weeks, and months that followed, James became consumed by this idea. Apparently, he'd picked it up from his grandparents, who during Katrina had looked out at the wind and water and talked casually about the end times. Whatever the source, whatever the trigger, Karen Treeding says suddenly in November, James could not let it go.

Ms. TRUDING: Every night and every day we--it was exhausting to have the conversations with him about the world's not coming to an end this week. The world will not come to an end this week.

SPIEGEL: He cried constantly, and could not be left alone, even at school. Karen had to change her schedule so she could help manage his frequent panic attacks.

Ms. TRUDING: I can remember being at school. He's standing outside just sobbing, and I had to physically pull him back into the school. It's tough.

SPIEGEL: James was recently diagnosed with a storm related anxiety disorder and put on medication. And James isn't the only child who's struggling in the wake of Katrina. Doug Faust, Chief of Psychiatry at Children's Hospital in New Orleans, says that the number of children with psychological problems has increased substantially.

Dr. DOUG FAUST (Chief of Psychiatry, Children's Hospital New Orleans): In the last three weeks, I've had to hospitalize two patients for psychiatric reasons. In my typical role, I once hospitalized one or two patients a year.

SPIEGEL: And Faust says it's not just children with a history of mental health problems. He points to a young patient traumatized by Katrina whose family requested hospitalization after their daughter repeatedly tried to jump from a moving car.

Dr. FAUST: She did it three times in three weeks.

SPIEGEL: Do you know if she had any history before the storm?

Dr. FAUST: She did not. No.

SPIEGEL: So how prevalent are these problems among children? A recent Columbia University study based on face to face interviews with hundreds of evacuees in FEMA subsidized housing appears to have an answer. The study is the first of its kind, and David Abramson, the study's lead researcher, says that when his group started out, they expected only about a quarter of the children would have serious emotional problems. But they were wrong.

Dr. DAVID ABRAMSON (Researcher and Psychologist, Columbia University): Almost half of the parents described having at least, you know, one child in their household that was having these kind of significant issues.

SPIEGEL: That's right, almost half. And that's not all. According to Abramson's research, two-thirds of the women evaluated in the study had very low scores on a commonly used mental health diagnostic. Abramson, who for ten years studied the mental health of people suffering from AIDS, says that even people who are HIV positive don't usually have such high numbers.

Dr. ABRAMSON: That would compare with about 40 percent of the group of people who are HIV positive that we ordinarily follow here in the New York City area. So it's just astonishingly high.

SPIEGEL: And this number is significant, Abramson says, because children are more susceptible to emotional problems when their caregivers are struggling.

Dr. ABRAMSON: There's a very direct relationship between a mother's mental health and a child's ability to cope, and their mental health problems.

SPIEGEL: All of which leads Abramson to this distressing conclusion.

Dr. ABRAMSON: I mean, I'm not trying to raise a flag that doesn't need to be raised, but there's no doubt that unless this is addressed, and mental health issues for both kids and adults are dealt with, there are going to be potentially catastrophic results years down the road.

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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