Psycho-medical and social effects of natural disasters
What are some of the psycho-medical and social effects of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina on children living through this traumatic event?
Natural disasters like hurricane Katrina and other events like the 9/11 terrorists attacks have grave implications on all persons that live through these traumatic events. The effects on our most fragile population sometimes go unrecognized in our youngest patients,
The effects of a disaster are medicated by personal experience, parental reaction and the child’s developmental competency at the time of the disaster. It must be stressed that like adults who experience traumatic stress so do children. The only difference is that the symptoms are manifested differently and they sometimes go unrecognized.
A disaster is generally defined as a dreadful event that causes destruction to property, loss of life and sometimes displacement from children from their parents. The effects of these disasters on children are generally never uniform or universal in nature. Depending on the child’s age and developmental stages and many other factors determine the psych-medical manifestations of traumatic stress.
In is widely known that children react differently according to the level of direct exposure to the event. Manifestations and symptoms are more deleterious if the child and family immediately affected (loss of loved one’s or destruction of their home), and by the fearful and distressing reactions of their parents. Events that produce few disruptions in the child’s social and living situation are less damaging than chronic events that lead to lasting changes in the child’s social environment. A good example would be of a child who has lost his home and parents to the floodwaters in New Orleans and because of that has been placed in the foster care system because no other family members can be found. Traumatic stress affects more seriously those children that are most directly involved with the incident, but it can also affect children that are safe in other states indirectly viewing the horrific events on the television or observing the initial and ongoing responses of their teachers at school and their parents at home.
For children that experience a traumatic event, there is some degree of behavioral and social adjustments problems that should be expected. These are a child’s normal response to an abnormal event. After exposure many children experience fears, anxiety and depression. If the problem is recognized in time, they can be helped to cope with their stress, and the symptoms will subside. If these symptoms are ignored, the child will become more susceptible to the prolonged consequences of PTSD.
After a sever traumatic event such as Hurricane Katrina, parents and caregivers can expect these affected children to go through different stages in the process. In the first stage, which generally is immediately after the disaster, children have reactions of fright, disbelief, denial and grief. Sometimes children are relieved if loved ones have not been harmed.
In the second stage of a traumatic event, this occurs a few days to weeks after the disaster, children have manifestations of anxiety, sadness depression, hostility and aggressive behavior towards others. Sometimes these children become apathetic, withdrawn, they have sleep disturbances, and they demonstrate play that mimics themes related to the event. This type of behavior is a normal part of the recovery process and generally last a couple of weeks.
For children that have been exposed to this hostile environment for a prolonged period of time, they become at risk for developing PTSD later in life often associated with violent and delinquent behaviors. In such extreme cases it is necessary for these children top receive counseling form a mental health professional.
Children of different ages interpret traumatic events such as disasters, war and abandonment differently. Their developmental ages individually influence their reactions to such events. Medical and Psychological interventions should be aga appropriate.
The response to younger infants and children is exemplified by mood, anxiety, and behavioral manifestations. These children are unable to understand the intentions and logic of the situations they are placed into. As a result the young child in more concerned with the consequences of the event. Even though little children may have no cognitive understanding of the disastrous event, the destruction, abandonment and loss of loved ones can lead to regression and detachment in order to protect their inner psyche from the surrounding conditions. In the first year of life, such experiences can manifest themselves with increased crying, irritability, exaggerated startle response, and separation anxiety. Toddlers and pre-school aged children can experience sleep terrors and nightmares, and a regression in behavioral skills manifesting themselves as helplessness, clinging behavior and temper tantrums.
In the older school-aged child, they demonstrate traumatic stress through trauma related play and aggressive behavior. Like the younger children, they too may become withdrawn, apathetic, and exhibit behavioral problems and other forms of somatization, such as abdominal pain, headaches without any medical problems.
With the worldwide violence, natural disasters and abandonment of thousands of children into orphanages, traumatic stress is a common sometimes ignored entity in the pediatric population. It is incumbent upon the medical profession a whole to identify those children ( ex: victims of the 9/11 disaster, survivors of Hurricane Katrina and any Post-institutionalized child ) no matter how well adapted they appear momentarily appear.
Immediate identification of these survivors and a timely referral to a mental health care professional provides the only opportunity for these children to improve the outcomes and not suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD later in life.
By Mark Lerner, Ph.D. President of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, and
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