Adolescent Survivors of Natural Disasters Show Higher Levels of PTSD


Adolescents exposed to disasters had higher levels of emotional trauma.

New research presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in San Diego shows that adolescents aged 14 to 18 years who were exposed to natural and environmental disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, had higher levels of alcohol misuse as well as emotional trauma than did their peers.

According to the researchers, led by Robert Fuchs, a second-year MD-PhD student at Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, these findings indicate that mental health services are critical for youth who have experienced deep emotional trauma.

Joy D. Osofsky, PhD, a clinical and developmental psychologist and the Paul J. Ramsey Chair and Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, gave the presentation on behalf of the team, which also included Howard J. Osofsky, MD, PhD, the Kathleen and John Bricker Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Louisiana State University (LSU) Health New Orleans School of Medicine, at a press conference on the opening day of APA 2017.

She explained that the team has been studying the effects of natural and environmental disasters on residents’ mental health since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of Louisiana near New Orleans in August 2005.

Causing $108 billion dollars in damage, the Category 3 storm—which made US landfall 3 times and reached Category 5 strength at its height—ranks as one of the 5 deadliest hurricanes to hit the United States, killing more that 1800 people in 6 states, most from massive flooding as levee systems along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River, such as those surrounding the city of New Orleans, failed.1

Five years later, in April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, an oil drilling rig operating in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded and sank, killing 11 workers on the rig and spilling 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf’s waters over the 3 following months, causing $8.8 billion in damages to natural resources.2

“Children are often left out of the equation,” Osofsky said, in studying the emotional affects in the aftermath of a disaster, whether it be natural, environmental, or the result of a terrorist attack, so the team wanted to focus its research on the adolescent population specifically due, in part, to the lack of evidence-based study on this age group.

Their study sample was 450 high school students aged 14 to 18 years of age who resided in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, and had been exposed to both Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as children. The students completed a survey asking about their socioeconomic status, emotional states, their degree of exposure to the disasters, and their level of alcohol use.

The adolescents who responded that they had been “highly exposed” to both the hurricane and the oil rig disasters had higher levels of both alcohol misuse and emotional trauma, or posttraumatic stress disorder, than did peers in the same age group who had not been exposed to either disaster or with lower exposure to these disasters.

The team concluded that social support aimed at assisting adolescent victims of natural or environmental disasters cope with feelings of depression, anger, and loneliness may reduce alcohol use in this population.


1. Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hurricane Katrina. Updated January 12, 2016. Accessed May 20, 2017.

2. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Deepwater Horizon—BP Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill. Accessed May 20, 2017.

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