Check Up: For poor, Katrina left toxic emotional residue

Posted: February 06, 2012

Nearly five years after Katrina's floodwaters subsided, a group of low-income mothers from New Orleans were still worse off psychologically than be- fore the August 2005 storm.

Researchers from Princeton University realized they had an unusual opportunity when the storm hit. They already had begun studying 532 low-income mothers, so they had baseline information about mental health problems before this vulnerable population had to cope with Katrina.

The women were surveyed before the storm, seven to 19 months after, and again 31/2 to 41/2 years after. They were tracked through their cellphones even though they had moved to 23 states. Their average age was 26, and most were African American.

The bottom line: "Recovery takes a long time," said Christina Paxson, lead investigator and dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

At the third interview, "large fractions of the population still had serious symptoms of post-traumatic stress and had highly elevated levels of psycho- logical distress," she said.

A third of the women then had symptoms that put them at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and 30 percent had enough psychological distress to qualify as being at least mildly mentally ill with anxiety or depression. They were better than they had been 11 months after the storm, but had not returned to pre-hurricane levels, when 24 percent suffered from psychological distress.

The homes of 81 percent of the women had been damaged. They reported an average of 2.9 traumas: events such as not being able to get enough food, water or medical care or not knowing whether children or other family members were safe. Thirty-two percent said a family member or friend died because of the hurricane.

Home damage was especially strongly related to symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Almost everybody in the study had to leave home for a while. On average, the women moved more than three times in the year following the storm. About 65 percent were back in the New Orleans area two years after Katrina, though many did not return to the central part of the city.

- Stacey Burling

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