Kids Feel Mother Nature's Stress

Children with PTSD and depression have a harder time coping after natural disasters

(RxWiki News) The damage has only just begun. After Hurricane Isaac struck the coast this week, the destruction may also be hidden in the children.

A new study examines how kids with depression and post-traumatic stress need more help in dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster.

"Teach your kids coping skills."

The study, led by Annette La Greca, PhD, psychology and pediatrics professor at the University of Miami and colleagues, looked at children's symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS) and depression eight and 15 months after Hurricane Ike hit in 2008.

They examined 277 children in second through fourth grades. A little more than half were female and came from various ethnic groups.

The children were divided into groups of 25 to 40 students and were read a series of questions covering their sense of loss, disruption in life and symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression.

From the information collected, children were categorized into one of four groups: those who have PTS and depression, PTS-only, depression-only and no PTS or depression.

Researchers found that 35 percent of children felt some kind life threat during the hurricane and 53 percent actually experienced a life-threatening event.

The most common event, among 27 percent of the children, was seeing someone badly hurt, and 79 percent said they evacuated.

Damage or destruction of homes was reported by 53 percent of children, and 92 percent of the children had some loss or disruption in their lives because of Ike.

After the hurricane, 75 percent of the kids continued to have their lives disrupted, primarily because they had to move.

"Children may have to move or change schools. Their neighborhood may not be safe for outdoor play and they may not be able to spend time with their friends," La Greca said.

"Children need help coping with these and other post-disaster stressors."

And since the hurricane, 71 percent of the students had at least one other major life event, with 23 percent having a parent change jobs.

Age and minority status did not affect symptoms among the participants.

The authors say it is important to evaluate children's post-traumatic stress and depression symptoms to identify who's most affected, based on their study.

"Overcoming trauma is about learning what the triggers are and focusing on how to manage any stress associated with those triggers. Mindfulness is a great skill to develop for this and many other challenges," said LuAnn Pierce, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and dailyRx contributing expert.

"The bottom line - be aware and encourage kids to use the coping skills they learn - not only during stressful times, but as a regular part of daily life. They will be more likely to remember the skills when they need them," she said.

The authors found that eight months after the disaster, 13 percent of the children had elevated PTS, 11 percent had depression and 10 percent had both.

At the fifteen month mark post-Ike, 7 percent had PTS, 11 percent still had depression and 7 percent had both.

They found that children with signs of post-traumatic stress and depression were more likely to have long-term negative reactions. The group is less likely to recover 15 months after the disaster compared to other youth.

These kids also have more severe psychological symptoms and are affected more by post-disaster stressors.

"It is important to recognize that their fears are real and help them learn coping skills to manage those fears," Pierce said.

The authors note several limitations in their study. They did not know how the children in their study functioned before the disaster and relied solely on children's self-reports.

Further, they did not use structured interviews since they are more difficult to conduct in studies with larger numbers of participants.

The authors do not declare any conflicts of interest.

The study is to be published in the Journal of Affective Disorders

Review Date: 
August 31, 2012