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Gulf kids need more school support

Study says long-term mental health of children who survived Katrina, Rita, is not being met by Gulf Coast schools.

BY STAFF REPORT | SANTA MONICA, CA | December 26, 2007


"Schools need to respond not only in the weeks following a disaster, but for the months and years afterward when lingering mental health problems start showing up."

—Lisa H. Jaycox


Gulf Coast schools have failed to provide for the long-term mental health needs of students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, according to the results of a study recently completed by a California-based think tank.

"Mental health responses were good during the early part of the crisis, but most schools were not able to sustain their efforts,” said Lisa H. Jaycox of the nonprofit research organization RAND, which conducted the study.

"Schools need to respond not only in the weeks following a disaster, but for the months and years afterward when lingering mental health problems start showing up," said Jaycox, who headed the study for RAND Health.

The study of schools in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas reported that while comprehensive efforts were made to assist students immediately after the disasters, those efforts only lasted for about six months at many schools.

Some of the schools determined there was no longer a need to provide the additional services, researchers said, while other schools ended the programs due to lack of funding or trained staff. It noted that some schools were able to extend additional services to displaced students.

"Schools in larger cities tended to have the strongest mental health systems in place before the storms, but needed them to tend to the needs of their pre-existing students," they said. "Smaller, rural communities were less likely to have staff members trained to screen and assist troubled students."

Other reasons schools cited for ending programs included difficulties in communicating with parents, burnout of staff members trying to implement the programs while also having to deal with their own personal losses from the storm and problems in balancing the needs of displaced students with the needs of existing students, they said.

"Despite significant efforts to meet the mental health needs of students affected by the hurricanes, many schools were limited in their ability to implement disaster-focused programs," RAND said. "The study suggests that districts and schools would benefit from extending crisis plans to include pre-crisis training in mental health programs for students and for staff who have ongoing difficulties after a disaster."

The RAND study, published in Psychiatric Services, was based on interviews at 19 public and 11 private and parochial school systems which had enrolled a large number of displaced students.

The study reported that more than 196,000 students in kindergarten through high school were displaced in Louisiana by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Students in Mississippi and Alabama were also impacted by Katrina while students in Texas and Louisiana were displaced by Rita in September 2005.

The study cited reports showing that almost one-third of students from New Orleans had elevated symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"A lot of these children lived in inner city New Orleans and faced stress caused by poverty even before the storms hit," Jaycox said.

While students suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder might appear to be fine and attended school every day, they may still be struggling, she added.

The study recommended that schools develop crisis plans to address long-term mental health issues for students as well as for staff members and their families.

"Education is the primary mission of schools, but schools also serve as a community hub in a disaster, doing everything from providing shelter to mental health services," Jaycox said. "Few people are able to access specialty mental health care. If they can get care in a community setting like a school, then many more can be served."


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