Kids Still Shaken by Katrina

Research shows the emotional impact of years of poverty, instability and government neglect.

By Michelle Chen Aug 24, 2010

Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters haven’t stopped rippling through the minds of children on the Gulf Coast. Studies suggest that five years later, the accumulated stress of instability and poverty–and government neglect–has shown up in families’ emotional and mental health. According to a long-term study by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, about 37 percent of children "have received a clinical mental health diagnosis of depression, anxiety, or behavior disorder." That means nearly four in 10 kids, according to their parents’ reports, have spent much of their first years wading through deep emotional and mental crises. The researchers discovered that "children exposed to Hurricane Katrina were nearly 5 times as likely as a pre-Katrina cohort to exhibit serious emotional disturbance," which is often fueled by other forms of household or family stress. The study reinforces previous research that has shown the ways in which the stressors of poverty show up in both physical and mental health. According to the Columbia study, Katrina kids’ mental health problems are tied to stressors like "unstable housing, lost income post-Katrina, the financial stressor of insufficient money for household food, and poor family functioning." Concentrated poverty helps undermine the "family functioning" as parents wrestle with their own emotional pressures. The study noted, "More than 13% of parents report that they are not coping well with the daily demands of parenting, compared with the national average of 3%." While all of this ties into race, the exact role of racial difference isn’t clear; some forms of emotional disturbance seemed significantly less prevalent among blacks compared to whites. But a 2009 article by sociologist Francis Adeola of the University of New Orleans highlighted evidence that black people are in fact at much higher risk of psychological crisis:

African Americans are found with higher levels of psychosocial problems including trouble sleeping, having feelings of depression, anxiety, and worrying about immediate and nearest futures than their White counterparts. They also have a higher score on reported difficulties in family relationships.

The devastation could be especially acute for mothers who gave birth around the time of the disaster. A Tulane University study of post-Katrina postpartum mental health found that, "Black women and women with less education were more likely to have had a serious experience of the hurricane," and "Overall, two or more severe experiences of the storm was associated with an increased risk for both depression… and PTSD." Meanwhile, all of this may be compounded by years of earned distrust of the health care system–the people most in need of care may be most likely to avoid it. In a 2005 NPR report on post-Katrina mental health and race, Dr. Harold Neighbors of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, explained that widely circulated stories of bad experiences with institutions led many black residents to seek emotional support from family and church rather than professionals:

It seems that everybody has a story about an acquaintance, an aunt or an uncle or a cousin, who was either taken away involuntarily, committed; typically it might be a story about an interaction with the police. And those stories tend to circulate and contribute to a lot of reluctance to seek help for mental health problems.

Of course, while Katrina’s vestigial wounds still fester, an ugly second disaster has assaulted Gulf Coast survivors: Recent surveys by the Columbia Center for Disaster Preparedness reveal that the BP oil spill has unleashed another wave of anxiety, with disparate impacts on poor households as well as black children.