In Katrina’s Aftermath, Psychologists Find Trauma As Well As Resilience

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, forcing more than half a million residents to flee, psychologists are investigating the mental and emotional fallout of the natural disaster.

A series of longitudinal studies of Katrina survivors, featured this week in the journal Nature, paint a complicated picture of the storm’s repercussions for mental health.

The studies, which were conducted as part of the Resilience in Survivors of Katrina Project, showed that many Katrina survivors experienced mental health issues related to the disaster. But researchers were surprised to observe that a number of survivors also showed remarkable resilience, and even growth, in the wake of trauma.

“The possibility of positive change was so far from our radar screens that not a single question about improvement was included in our first round of post-disaster [data] collection,” Dr. Jean Rhodes, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and one of the RISK project’s principal investigators, told The Huffington Post. “Yet our data revealed that natural disasters and other traumatic events could be engines of growth, resulting in a kind of spiritual awakening.”

Rhodes noted that this growth didn’t come easily: A high percentage of survivors struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions before going on to experience what is known as post-traumatic growth. Others experienced mental illness related to the disaster that ultimately did not lead to resilience or growth.

The RISK Project, created by Rhodes and a team of psychologists from around the country, came about in an unexpected way. In 2003, the team began collecting data on more than 1,000 low-income parents in New Orleans, to study whether receiving community college scholarships would improve the parents’ well-being.

Interrupted when Katrina hit in 2005, the researchers got a —> Read More