PTSD after Katrina: like everything else, little help
He can't leave his toys behind
Depression, anxiety in Katrina's kids
Patterns of hurricane's psychological effects emerging
Wednesday, April 26, 2006; Posted: 10:02 a.m. EDT (14:02 GMT)
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AP) -- Each time the 3-year-old gets in the bathtub, she thinks she's going to drown. Monica whimpers when her grandmother turns on the faucet, sobbing softly at first, then wailing as the tub begins to fill.
"She cries and cries. 'Don't be crying,' I tell her. 'I gotta wash your hair,"' says her exasperated grandmother, Ruth May Smith.
There's no use telling her she won't drown; the word isn't yet part of the toddler's vocabulary. And it won't do much good to tell her that grandma will take care of her, either; Monica learned the hard way that those she loves can't always protect her.
There were seven children inside the family's Gulf Coast home on August 29 when the 30-foot wave, unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, crashed down upon it. As the walls began to crumble, the older children swam out. Monica, the littlest, was still inside with her grandmother and two aunts. None could swim.
The toddler went under. She would have drowned if not for a family friend who dove in, fished her out and placed her inside a floating cooler.
In her plastic ark, the girl bobbed to safety -- but the storm's high water mark is still imprinted inside her, as it is in thousands of others who survived the storm.
During the London blitz in World War II, Anna Freud, the daughter of the famed psychoanalyst, observed that children sent to safe homes in the countryside fared worse than those who waited out the bombings in shelters alongside their mothers.
It was the separation, rather than the exposure to the war, that proved more traumatic.
When her father takes a nap, 8-year-old Gabrielle Riley circles the bedroom, on edge. Eventually, she quietly turns the doorknob. "I just go in his room and see if he's OK. But sometimes he don't answer me so I just scream loud, 'Daddy are you OK?"' she explains.
Gabrielle's mother caught pneumonia during the family's evacuation to Houston and died in her sleep. Ever since, Gabrielle has been unable to fall asleep by herself, curling up with her grandmother, instead. It's a recurring pattern, say child psychologists, as children retreat into what is most familiar.
More than 60 years ago, Anna Freud had a second observation: While children who hunkered down in London's bomb shelters with their guardian fared better emotionally than those sent out of harm's way, the children who did best of all were those whose mothers stayed calm. If the mother showed fear, the child sensed the threat implicitly -- and symptoms of trauma surfaced later.
Like youngsters in London, many child victims of the story sensed the threat in their parents' reaction and, in Katrina's aftermath, in TV footage.
Some kids -- like 6-year-old Michael Watts, Jasmine's next-door neighbor -- are taking matters into their own hands. As the storm approached, he did what his parents told him: Pack a single bag. Don't take more than a few day's worth of clothes.
He returned to find his toys caked in mud.
That's when he asked his parents for a suitcase, one with wheels and a handle. In it, he began storing every new toy he was given since the storm.
Now, he doesn't let the suitcase out of his sight, lugging it behind him on errands, to the store, to restaurants and to sleep-overs. Inside are his treasures: Sponge Bob and Batman. A Game Boy. A growing collection of plastic, Hulk-like men.
Many kids aren't getting help
"Make no mistake: This is a crisis and it should be dealt with as an emergency," says Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, which in a recently released report called for immediate emergency mental health services in the Gulf states.
Overwhelmed, child psychologists in New Orleans say case loads have doubled, both because of the heightened need and because so many doctors have not returned. "I used to be able to book a new child within two weeks. Now, I'm booking appointments two months out," says child psychologist Carlos Reinoso, author of the book "Little Ducky Jr. and the Whirlwind Storm," which tries to explain the hurricane to children.
What mental health professionals fear most is the impact down the road.
Tracking more than 200 children who were victims of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia that killed 25,000 people over five years, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles' Trauma Psychiatry Program found that those who were given professional help early on fared better and showed fewer symptoms at the end of the study. Those who got no help did not improve.
Some may already be beyond help.
No one noticed that a 14-year-old girl in Pass Christian -- once a straight-A student -- had stopped reading since Katrina.
The girl, who asked that she not be identified because she felt embarrassed, used to lose herself in books. "I would picture myself as the main character in whatever I was reading. I read so much that I would lose track of time," she says.
Now, she has a hard time concentrating. Horrible images intrude as she reads.
She remembers the drowned man, impaled on his plywood fence. She pictures her favorite skirt high up in the branches of a tree.
Last month, she locked herself inside the bathroom of her family's FEMA trailer and lifted a bottle of Lysol to her lips. Her mother found her passed out on the toilet seat, her head leaning against the trailer's plastic wall, the floor slick with the disinfectant.
The girl recovered from the suicide attempt, but her family doesn't have the resources to get her professional help, relying instead on teachers and school counselors.
To this girl, the world is a tunnel of darkness. She sees no way out.
"It's like I can't see my future anymore," she says.
You know it's bad when the kids are compared to the survivors of the London Blitz. Of course, none of these kids will ever get the followup care they need--hell, they can't even get guaranteed housing at this point.
posted by Steve @ 7:28:00 PM