In his 30 years working with young survivors of trauma, child psychologist Russell Jones, PhD, says he had never experienced a disaster of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina.
"I can say that Katrina set a new benchmark for natural disasters in the United States," said Jones, a clinical psychology professor at Virginia Tech, at a Jan. 19 congressional briefing coordinated by APA's science policy staff and the Coalition on Health Funding.
In September, Jones traveled to Gulfport, Miss., as a mental health consultant for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). At the briefing, he spoke about his experiences in Mississippi, his ongoing work throughout the region with the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and his upcoming research on the mental health aftereffects of the hurricane.
"Most hurricane survivors demonstrate remarkable resiliency and will rebuild their lives without significant mental health issues," Jones said. However, he added, the sheer number of people affected by Katrina means that there will still be many-including many children-who need mental health services. SAMHSA estimates that the total number could be as high as 500,000, and that that number could include as many as 100,000 children who experience post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and traumatic grief.
To help figure out how best to serve those people, Jones is collaborating with a Harvard Medical School-led team of researchers conducting telephone interviews of a representative sample of 2,000 Katrina survivors. The participants will describe their experiences during and after the hurricane, their access to physical and mental health care, and their suggestions for what could be done to improve their situations.
"We're finding that people really want to talk," Jones said. "Once you call, you can't get them off the phone."
At the briefing, Jones was joined by Alabama Department of Public Health officer Donald Williamson, MD, who described the department's response to an influx of storm refugees from neighboring states, and Gina Lagarde, MD, the medical director of Louisiana's Maternal and Child Health Program.
Lagarde explained that the New Orleans public health system lost services in 141 out of 201 hospitals, and lost up to 6,000 doctors, nurses and other health-care workers, among other problems. She also described the Public Health Department's response to the storm, which she said hinged on the ability to be flexible.