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What We Know about Natural Disasters and Children's Mental Health: Cold Comfort for Kids in Haiti

Posted Jan 20 2010 11:16am

Post-traumatic stress sounds like something that happens only to people who experience disasters first-hand?  Right?

Not exactly. 

Just one thing on my mind last Wednesday before school when I told my older children about the earthquake in Haiti.  We knew people with family and friends there and I didn't want them finding out on the playground.  So I told them briefly. My first-grader asked if people had died.  Yes.  Alot?  Yes, a lot.

She consoled herself with the fact that natural disasters are pretty rare in New Jersey.

No earthquakes.
No tsunamis.
No tornados.
No hurricanes.

Me, I coped the best way I knew - going to the internet for the cold hard data and studies on post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and resiliency in children.  But it was hardly comforting or even really helpful.

Just in the last couple decades we got lots of data from horrific disasters - children who'd survived Hurricane Andrew, Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, 9/11, and the Columbine shootings.  Doesn't take a Ph.D. to guess kids who've lived through these terrifying events often experience post-traumatic stress symptoms and in it's most severe form, PTSD, a full blown disorder (nightmares, anxiety, anger, "flashbacks").   And the longer they experience the violence, disorder, and fear, etc., the worse the symptoms.  Estimates of PTSD are all over the place, from like nearly 99% to 3% of kids having symptoms. 

Those who left New Orleans after Katrina fared much better psychologically.  As if the children of Haiti can leave.  Cross that off the list.   Recent evidence of morphine reducing PTSD?  Much too late for that therapy.  So basically all we've learned about coping and resiliency in the face of disaster offers little comfort. And practically nothing to help the children of Haiti.

Maybe the only helpful finding for us, at least those of us watching from afar - watching too much can also cause PTSD symptoms, even in teens and adults.  Most of us probably do limit our children's exposure to graphic images, at least our younger ones.  Many experts agree younger children (say, under 12 or 13) shouldn't even be watching any of the coverage.  It's harder to limit exposure for older kids, obviously.  But when the newspaper puts photographs of mass death and destruction on the front page, it's hard to keep it from our younger family members.  I'm still physically sick when I think of the footage from this week's 60 Minutes - and I'm an adult with more resources to cope. 

So how have our reigning authorites on mental health dealth with the tragedy?

Last week the American Psychological Association homepage had a general "how to cope" segment posted and something about how psychologists help out in these events.  Just noticed they've added a new page for journalists on coping with the disaster and a list of books for children (e.g., kids who've survived terrible events).  Guess they didn't quite know how to approach Haiti last week either.  I mean, it's taken me a week to write about it. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics finally got a more detailed "coping" guide up for parents.  But it's more like a prep manual, really, how to prepare your family for any manner of emergency.  Anyhow, pretty generic. Looks like something written after 9/11.

Then there's advice from a clinical psychologist in the The Star Ledger, a New Jersey paper.  Monica Indart, who advises the UN and UNICEF reminds us to take this opportunity to teach our kids a lesson - lots of people suffer horribly and we can and must help them.  Do it in small doses and be proactive.  She also says pre-schoolers pick up on parental emotions like sadness and distress better and faster than older kids.  But I'd like to see that data.  Anyone?? I hate to question a woman who consults with international relief organizations, and who is apparently an expert, but I'm just wondering.
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