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First-of-Its-Kind Research on Adolescents after Disasters

Mental Health Fallout from Disasters Affects Teens, Too

Hurricane Katrina Rescue

Research led Dr. Joy Osofsky, Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine, has found that adolescents who experienced the double disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill not only experienced the same emotional trauma, posttraumatic stress (PTS), anger, depression and family problems as adults, but some also coped by abusing alcohol just like their older relatives. The research was among the first to study alcohol use by disaster-affected adolescents and to study adolescents after a manmade disaster like an oil spill. Dr. Osofsky discussed the findings at a press briefing at the American Psychiatric Association 2017 annual meeting in San Diego.

“Past studies on the emotional toll of disasters have left children out of the equation," Osofsky said, “and much of the research has focused only on natural disasters. This new research underlines the importance of social support and access to mental health services for adolescents experiencing psychological distress.”

The LSU Health New Orleans research team, which also included MD-PhD student Robert Fuchs, Psychiatry, Clinical Associate Professor Dr. Tonya Hansel, and Psychiatry Professor and Chair Dr. Howard Osofsky, examined the impact these two disasters had on 459 high school students in St. Bernard Parish.

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A Disaster Interview Survey completed by the students revealed their levels of exposure to both Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, as well as feelings of anger, depression and loneliness, family problems and risk-taking behaviors such as alcohol use. The team found that both family problems and anger were predictive of alcohol risk-taking behavior. They also report that alcohol use, oil spill experience, Katrina experience, family problems, depression, anger and loneliness significantly predicted lingering posttraumatic stress symptoms.
Dr Joy Osofsky
"Adolescents certainly use risk-taking behaviors as a way to deal with their stress and their anger," said Osofsky. "Loneliness is important when taken together with displacement issues and family problems."

The study also demonstrated the influence of parents’ attitudes on their children. “If parents were doing okay, their kids were more likely to do okay, too, but the study uncovered a lot of family problems, which can influence how well children fare,” Osofsky noted. "Not only did we see alcohol abuse in some adolescents, we saw alcohol abuse in the families, as well as substance use and domestic violence and a number of other things."

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
These disasters altered the way of life in this tight-knit community. After Katrina, relatives who used to live down the block moved elsewhere changing the social fabric, and the oil spill changed even more. "At the age of 11 or 12 years, you're supposed to have the opportunity to go out with your grandpa on his fishing boat, and with the uncertainties following the oil spill, these youngsters weren't going to have that chance."
The researchers conclude that following disasters, adolescents’ emotional and mental well-being should not rely solely upon only psychotherapy or psychopharmacology. “Other ways to help support children and families are also important,” said Osofsky. "Social support to help adolescent disaster victims with feelings of depression, anger and loneliness may reduce alcohol use and the development of dependence in these populations. The idea of integrating more trauma-informed care and mental health services in de-stigmatizing ways will make a significant difference for the adolescent population."