Cover Story

Robert Robinson remembers staring at the dark, dirty water seeping down his street the day after Hurricane Katrina struck.

Within an hour the water was three feet deep and rising, and a neighbor pulled Robert and his family aboard a small boat and took them to his house, where they were stranded for three days.

When they were later rescued by a National Guard boat, neighbors called for help from flooded homes, but the boat was full and they couldn't stop to help, Robert said.

He still remembers the feel of his mother's hand on the back of his neck, pushing his head down to duck live power lines as they navigated the drowned neighborhood.

Robert and his family finally made it back to New Orleans in January.

"By the time we moved back into the apartment we're living in now it was pretty much full, and I had to get back to my studies, which was kind of hard, with everything I was going through at was just a lot of disappointments, you can say," said Robert, 14, now a ninth-grader at Lusher Charter School in New Orleans.

Robert told his story at this year's Institute for Psychology in the Schools held before APA's 2006 Annual Conven-tion and sponsored by the APA Practice Directorate Office of Policy and Advo-cacy in the Schools. To begin the institute, participants took a bus trip that gave them a firsthand look at the devastation inflicted on the city when the levees broke, helping them understand the challenges faced by students like Robert.

Elizabeth Yost Hammer, PhD, a school psychologist at Loyola University, narrated the trip through some of the city's hardest-hit areas, including the Ninth Ward. There, the destruction inflicted by a break in the Industrial Canal was still visible one year later, with houses knocked off their foundations, wrecked cars lying under rubble and bare slabs of concrete where houses once stood.

One of the main messages the institute emphasized is that schools need to have a disaster plan in place for teaching students resilience skills before a disaster strikes and for providing psychological services in the aftermath.

Stacy Overstreet, PhD, a Tulane University school psychologist involved in local efforts in New Orleans, urged educators to include resiliency skills as part of their school's basic curriculum.

"Arm your schools, arm your students now, so when disaster strikes, our kids have the skills to cope and resources to draw on," she said.

Giving children like Robert a chance to talk about their experiences was just one of the approaches educators and psychologists who spoke at the institute recommended for tending to children's mental health needs following a large-scale disaster like Hurricane Katrina.

Other approaches described during the institute included time for enjoying physical activities outside, such as a one-mile foot race organized by Robert's school along a levee to raise money for charity. In Plaquemines Parish southeast of the city, students videotaped interviews with fellow students about lost family members and homes, learning about shared loss.

Institute participants also heard about efforts to give children a creative outlet through artwork and reflective essays on their personal experiences during and after Katrina.

School-based help

The institute focused on how schools help children deal with the relentless stress of uprooted lives.

Flexibility was a key aspect mentioned by several participants, including Margaret Leaf, a language arts teacher at Robert's school.

Leaf said she often gives students extra time to turn in homework assignments if they had to help their family work on a flood-damaged home the night before, and she understands if school books or other instructional materials she's handed out go missing as children move from place to place.

She also frequently takes time out from classwork to let her 23 students talk about what they've been through. Sometimes, they sit in a circle, and each student recalls something they miss. Sometimes it's a Burger King that's now closed, but students have talked about losing parents, too. Students also get opportunities to write about their feelings and express them through photographs and artwork, forming an archive of their post-Katrina lives, said Leaf.

In Robert's case, talking to the psychologists and social workers on hand at Lusher-brought in by school officials to help figure out the needs of displaced children-helps him deal with some of the anger he still feels, particularly when he talks to fellow students who didn't lose their homes. He also enjoys teacher-led activitiesin which each student gets a chance to say something about what they're going through.

The activities at Lusher are part of a mental health intervention system coordinated by the school and school psychologists at Tulane University, said Overstreet, director of Tulane's school psychology program.

A public health approach

Overstreet said helping children cope with Katrina's devastation requires taking a public health approach to mental health, looking to the strengths within communities and being culturally sensitive to an area's traditions.

In one activity tied to the New Orleans people's love of symbols such as the fleur-de-lis, children drew X's replicating the spray-painted X's that search-and-rescue teams placed on houses while searching for bodies in the weeks and months following Katrina. But instead of marking whether a body was found inside and the date a house was searched, children were asked to draw something symbolizing what they mourned and how they were affected-plus a personal power symbol and a power symbol for the city.

One child drew a peace sign as a symbol for the city, and a heart inscribed with the word "love" for her personal power symbol, Overstreet said.

Robin Jarvis, PhD, superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District-a branch of the state's education department seeking to turn around failing city schools-said that a mental health intervention program has been implemented systemwide, with the help of the Human Development Center at Louisiana State University's Health Sciences Center. As children report back to school this year, educators are assessing how each student is doing, academically, socially and emotionally. If they identify a problem, they call in psychologists, therapists and social workers to help with a specific plan for each child, whether it's counseling or home visits by a social worker, Jarvis said.

"Whatever it is they need, we're going to ensure they have it, and have access to it quickly," she said.

In rural Plaquemines Parish, the system's nine grade schools suffered extensive wind and flood damage. Monica Wertz, principal of the parish's Belle Chasse High School, described some of the district's healing efforts to institute attendees. In one effort, the district held "get acquainted" lunches where displaced students, almost all of whom now participate in the school's free lunch program, could order what they wanted to eat in the school cafeteria. Teams of psychologists have also met with students, teachers and parents at district schools, Wertz said.

Further Reading

Relevant resources from APA are available at the APA Public Education Campaign Web site for consumers.