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Hurricane Katrina research helps children cope with trauma

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, many children are still reliving hurricane trauma in their minds. 

One researcher has been examining the mental health of these disaster victims and their mothers during this time, with the hope of discovering the risk factors that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and how to prevent it from developing.

Using funding from a $378,000 grant she received in May 2006, LSU psychology professor Mary Lou Kelley is examining the effects of parenting behavior, maternal mental health, social support, academic achievement, and displacement on hurricane victims in fourth through eighth grade.

Her research is the one of the first longitudinal studies and examines the effects at four intervals over two years. Experts previously saw hurricanes as acute traumas, but new data shows that the effects may be lasting in some individuals. Kelley has had to stretch beyond her comfort zone and overcome personal physical obstacles in order to conduct the research, but she is more concerned about helping the children.

“My ultimate goal is for the study findings to affect policy and improve recovery after a disaster,” Kelley said.

Stretching comfort and overcoming obstacles

“When Katrina came, I asked myself ‘What could I do?’” Kelley said. “I felt a calling to stretch myself and use my expertise and resources for the children’s sake. I had to help. It just seemed right. I could not imagine not helping the children.”

Kelley normally focuses on parental involvement in children’s academic success and had no prior experience in disaster research, which is a relatively new field. Before Hurricane Katrina, Kelley never attempted to obtain a grant. As a full professor with 24 years of experience at LSU, she had no ulterior motivation.

“I was reading a completely new area of literature,” she said. “Disaster research is not my forte. I spent every waking hour reading disaster literature and writing the grant, because I had to get it in on time.”

Kelley quickly put together a team with various experience, including two other LSU professors. She also collaborated with researchers from the Disaster Research Educational and Mentoring center, including Kenneth Ruggiero of the Medical University of South Carolina.

“We were very committed as a team to do this research,” she said. “This was hard at first, especially because we were waiting on money.”

Even though she submitted the grant request eight weeks after the disaster, funding did not arrive until March. For accurate research results, she had to collect data at specific intervals. This meant that Kelley and her doctoral students had to pull five dollars out of their own pockets to compensate the participants each time they did a survey.

In addition to funding delays, Kelley was burdened with an unexpected personal crisis. Amid the hustle to obtain the grant and conduct the research, on December 20, 2005, Kelley was diagnosed with cancer.

Not only did she need surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, she was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer that required special treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

For nearly seven months, Kelley was traveling every week to receive treatment in Houston. But even when she was home, she traveled to New Orleans for her research.

“It got so stressful,” Kelley said. “My team had such a tight deadline. I was writing, researching, and traveling back and forth. My graduate students were fantastic during my treatment, and we all pulled together to accomplish our research goals.”

While in Houston at the cancer center, she kept working and was constantly on the phone or sending emails to colleagues. The team often had research meetings at Kelley’s home, working around her treatment schedule.

“I threw myself into it,” Kelley said. “It was great to have the work. It was my best work.”

Research Findings

A PTSD diagnosis indicates that an individual experienced a life-threatening event and responded with intense fear. In order to help children overcome PTSD, researchers must identify factors that lead to better adjustment after experiencing a traumatic event, such as a hurricane or other disaster.   

Key symptoms that often appear in children with PTSD are an initial stage of fear accompanied by nightmares and intrusive thoughts. Children have limited cognitive abilities, often causing them to perceive the event as more horrific than reality. Often, the traumatic scene will repeatedly replay mentally, causing the child to re-experience the pain.

For her study, Kelley compared 279 mother and child dyads displaced from New Orleans and surrounding parishes directly affected by Hurricane Katrina versus a control group of 96 Baton Rouge mother-child dyads. Both groups are similar demographically and consisted mainly of impoverished families. Mothers completed their questionnaires at home, and children completed them in small groups with adult help. 

Kelley and her students will complete the last phase of data collection this fall.  With this data, Kelley will be able to compare children who adjusted well over time to those who did not fare as well.       

Her study is the first attempt in the disaster literature to examine maternal psychopathology and parenting behavior as risk factors. The research found that children of lower income families experienced greater psychological distress than those at higher income levels. Results also indicated a relatively higher rate of loss and disruption post-Katrina compared to exposure to traumatic variables during the disaster.

Kelley’s team has expanded previous research from Hurricane Andrew, which had developed a measure for traumatic exposure and loss. Hurricane Andrew research showed that trauma symptoms reduced over time for all except a small minority. Kelley had hypothesized that the displaced sample would have higher incidences of PTSD, but this was not supported.           

In fact, there were no significant differences in the two samples, with both reporting fewer symptoms of PTSD as compared to children three months after experiencing Hurricane Andrew. Children victimized by Hurricane Katrina show similar levels and incidences of PTSD to other trauma victims, including victims of brushfire, earthquake, and tsunami.       

The high prevalence of PTSD symptoms in the non-displaced comparison sample from Baton Rouge was unexpected, based on previous studies. This may, however, be due to the Baton Rouge community being significantly affected by the indirect impact of Hurricane Katrina and being impoverished. It is common for impoverished children to have more PTSD symptoms because they are more likely to have been exposed to greater amounts of community violence.         

Kelley’s research also adds to previous disaster literature by measuring more variables and by looking at how family functions, such as having good routines and positive parenting, affect adjustment. Negative parenting practices, such as the use of corporal punishment and lack of parent involvement, were highly predictive of behavior problems in the displaced sample. The work also examines the role of community violence exposure, social support, and coping on children’s adjustment.

A major portion of recovery comes from getting back to normal schedules and families consistently following routines, Kelley said. Children often model their parents’ psychological symptoms.

“The thing about Katrina is that so little has changed for many of these children,” Kelley said. “I fear the children are re-experiencing the loss everyday. Certain symptoms are not improving. The city has not recovered from Katrina.”

Melissa Prescott | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Fall 2007

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