Persistence of Mental Health Needs among Children Affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans

ABSTRACT Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005 and destroyed the infrastructure ofNew Orleans. Mass evacuation ensued. The immediate and long-lasting impact of these events on the mental health of children have been reported in survey research. This study was done to describe the nature of mental health need of children during the four years after Hurricane Katrina using clinical data from a comprehensive healthcare program. Medical and mental health services were delivered on mobile clinics that traveled to medically underserved communities on a regular schedule beginning immediately after the hurricane. Patients were self-selected residents of New Orleans. Most had incomes below the federal poverty level and were severely affected by the hurricane.
Paper charts of pediatric mental health patients were reviewed for visits beginning with the establishment of the mental health program from 01 July 2007 through 30 June 2009 (n = 296). Demographics, referral sources, presenting problems, diagnoses, and qualitative data describing Katrina-related traumatic exposures were abstracted. Psychosocial data were abstracted from medical charts. Data were coded and processed for demographic, referral, and diagnostic trends.
Mental health service needs continued unabated throughout this period (two to nearly four years post-event). In 2008, 29% of pediatric primary care patients presented with mental health or developmental/learning problems, including the need for intensive case management. The typical presentation of pediatric mental health patients was a disruptive behavior disorder with an underlying mood or anxiety disorder. Qualitative descriptive data are presented to illustrate the traumatic post-disaster experience of many children. School referrals for mental health evaluation and services were overwhelmingly made for disruptive behavior disorders. Pediatric referrals were more nuanced, reflecting underlying mood and anxiety disorders. Histories indicated that many missed opportunities for earlier identification and intervention.
Mental health and case management needs persisted four years after Hurricane Katrina and showed no signs of abating. Many children who received mental health services had shown signs of psychological distress prior to the hurricane, and no causal inferences are drawn between disaster experience and psychiatric disorders. Post-disaster mental health and case management services should remain available for years post-event. To ensure timely identification and intervention of child mental health needs, pediatricians and school officials may need additional training.

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