Children's emotional distress after hurricane linked with parents' stress levels

Inner turmoil remains for many DeSoto County children

Tampa, FL -- Many families who lived through the destruction of Florida's Hurricane Charley in 2004 are likely still struggling with the storm's effects on their mental health.

A University of South Florida College of Public Health study released today found that how DeSoto County children coped with the hurricane's aftermath was closely linked to their parents' psychological well-being. The study was conducted with the DeSoto County Health Department and the DeSoto County School District.

A significant percentage of families reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including sleep disturbances, depression, anger and anxiety, months after the hurricane a time when many homes remained unrepaired and large debris piles still lined the streets.

"Our study found about 100 children with high levels of post traumatic stress in one rural county, eight months after Hurricane Charley. Because the study was anonymous, we don't know whether any of these children were treated for their symptoms," said study director Elizabeth Barnett, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at USF. "We do know that across the United States, there is a serious lack of mental health services particularly in rural and low-income areas.

"If parents have a sense of hopelessness and despair, it's sometimes difficult for them recognize their children's needs," Dr. Barnett said. "If we don't help parents cope with mental trauma following a disaster, they won't be able to help their children."

Mary Kay Burns, administrator at the DeSoto County Health Department, said the study findings will be a springboard for community action. "This gives us an opportunity to work with our community partners to recruit counselors and other professionals who can provide much needed mental health services.

"Scrapes and bruises heal fairly quickly and buildings can be repaired, but underlying anxieties that are not so obvious take longer to surface" Burns said. "As a society we have an obligation to our children, one of our most vulnerable populations, and to their families to create a sense of safety and emotional security and give them hope for the future."

The USF study assessed how well children and their parents had recovered psychologically and emotionally from Hurricane Charley eight months following the natural disaster. The researchers also looked at home damage from the hurricane and its effects on stress levels.

The researchers sent anonymous surveys home with all children from the three DeSoto County elementary schools in April 2005. The rural county was particularly hard hit by Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 hurricane that pummeled Southwest Florida in August 2004.

Three hundred parents representing 462 children responded to the survey. The survey also included a self-report for children in which they were asked to describe how they were feeling following the 2004 hurricane season. Among the key findings:

  • The majority of parents (79 percent) experienced panic during the hurricane, and just under half feared their own death (45 percent) or their child's death (42 percent) during the hurricane.
  • Eight months after the hurricane, nearly 40 percent of parents reported moderate or high levels of post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms, including fear, anxiety, anger and depression.
  • The majority of children (78 percent) reported at least one symptom of PTS.
  • Children whose parents experienced a high level of PTS symptoms as a result of the 2004 hurricane season were four times more likely to report high levels of stress as children whose parents reported no symptoms. Almost half (45 percent) of children reported high levels of PTS symptoms if their parents also reported high levels of stress symptoms.
  • High levels of PTS symptoms were reported by 27 percent of parents with structural damage to their homes, 40 percent of parents whose home damage was worse than their neighbors, and 55 percent of parents who lost keepsakes and photos in the hurricanes.
  • More than half the parents whose children had high levels of stress symptoms did not believe that counseling would benefit themselves or their children.

"The study is most valuable as we prepare to confront other disasters such as Hurricane Charley," said Adrian Cline, superintendent of the Desoto County School District, where elementary school nurses helped facilitate the survey. "The document helps provide a clear understanding of how to address the emotional needs of our students in the aftermath of such devastation."

The study's findings have implications for survivors of Hurricane Katrina now nine months out from the disaster wrought by that monster storm. "I would expect the burden of post-traumatic stress symptoms among Hurricane Katrina survivors to be even higher, because research has shown direct exposure to the dead and wounded is a strong risk factor for developing post-traumatic stress disorder," Dr. Barnett said. "Many communities hit by Katrina are similar to DeSoto County rural, agricultural, small-town and blue-collar. And, many of these Louisiana and Mississippi communities suffered greater damage and a higher number of fatalities and physical injuries than we saw in DeSoto County.

"Children and families in the Katrina communities who witnessed death and injury and who are still living in damaged buildings should be a priority target for mental health services."



Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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