Katrina Survivors Mostly Optimistic, New Study Finds

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

In the six months after Hurricane Katrina, the rate of serious mental illness among the storm's survivors doubled, an unusual study has found, but the number of people contemplating suicide did not budge. Most survivors, in fact, said they had found a new sense of purpose, strength and community through coping with the disaster.

Those are the early findings of a survey that will trace the emotional trajectory of Katrina's victims over at least the next two years, and possibly for decades.

Overall, the researchers found a "pervasive optimism" among hurricane survivors on the question of whether they expected to be able to rebuild their lives. Emotional resilience was as high -- and by some measures, higher -- among low-income blacks, a group that suffered some of the worst deprivations, as in the survivor population as a whole.

Nevertheless, six months after the storm, many people were still short of money, housing, security and employment. The researchers are not certain the generally encouraging psychological state of Katrina survivors will endure.

"Optimism only lasts so long," said Ronald C. Kessler, the psychologist at Harvard Medical School who heads the study. "How long? We know from survivors of other hurricanes that after about 18 months people start to wear out."

Although the Katrina study is not the first to follow survivors of a natural disaster in the United States over time, it is logistically the most complicated.

The researchers assembled what they hope is a representative group of Katrina survivors by sampling the list of 1.4 million families that applied to the Red Cross for assistance, reaching people through random-digit dialing of phone numbers along the Gulf Coast, and contacting residents of randomly selected motels housing hurricane evacuees.

"It took us three whole months to find these people because we had to look all over God's creation," Kessler said.

The 1,043 households finally chosen represent 42 percent of a larger sample. They all agreed to be interviewed repeatedly over time and collectively were named the "Hurricane Katrina Community Advisory Group," as part of their role is to provide feedback to relief agencies and government departments on their performance.

Smaller studies of Katrina survivors found much higher rates of emotional distress than did the Harvard-based survey, which presumably reached a greater variety of people.

For example, a survey in New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish seven weeks after the storm conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that "49.8% of adults exhibited levels of emotional distress indicating a potential need for mental health services." A survey in February of families still living in trailers and motels found that 44 percent of adult caregivers had "clinically significant psychological stress."

As a measure of pre-Katrina mental health, Kessler and his colleagues used the findings from about 800 Gulf Coast residents interviewed in a national survey earlier this decade.

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