The Hurricane Harvey Registry revealed something researchers have known for decades: natural disasters contribute to mental health problems. The registry’s recently announced initial findings showed nearly two-thirds of respondents experienced Harvey-related mental health difficulties, particularly symptoms of posttraumatic stress.
Similar to an uncovered cough spreading infection, or cigarettes contributing to cancer, health researchers have known for decades that traumatic events, such as catastrophic storms, can put individuals at risk for mental health problems, especially children and those who were previously exposed to traumas. Our teams at Texas Children’s Hospital and the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute let state and regional leaders know right after Harvey hit that they should expect rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the 1.4 million children in the storm’s path to be many times higher than national norms, and rates of severe mental health problems of all types to double. These effects build for years after a disaster, as secondary adversities begin to accumulate; temporary living arrangements unravel, plans to rebuild go awry, jobs go unfound and children are sent to new schools. This can lead to relationship problems, family conflict and feelings of hopelessness and isolation. This accumulation of adversity can put tens of thousands at risk for mental health problems that will worsen if not quickly treated.
Fortunately, we also know mental health problems are readily treatable and, in many cases, preventable when the right psychological care is provided as soon as possible after the toxic exposure. After Harvey, our first responders, public and private health systems and government leaders were more prepared than ever to provide such care.
The size of the storm, however, meant more needed to be done. At the local level, Texas Children’s and Baylor College of Medicine responded immediately. The Texas Children’s Trauma and Grief (TAG) Center created the Harvey Resiliency and Recovery Program, dedicated to providing best practice trauma-informed care to youth and families who were adversely impacted by the storm. This initiative also involved providing greater access to mental health care by partnering with Lyft (bringing families without transportation to Texas Children’s), deploying TAG Center therapists onto Texas Children’s Mobile Units, and training community- and school-based clinicians to provide evidence-based intervention in the aftermath of the storm.
At the state level, Gov. Greg Abbott charged several state agencies to form the Hurricane Harvey Task Force on Mental Health Supports. MMHPI provided pro bono support, thanks to the generosity of Texas philanthropists like Maureen and Jim Hackett, Lyda Hill, Charles Butt and the Meadows Family. Philanthropy, particularly support from The Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, Rebuild Texas, American Red Cross, Center for Disaster Philanthropy and Children’s Health Fund, helped many leading health systems and schools across the Texas Gulf Coast expand capacity. Over 70 state and local agencies came together to help, and TEA worked with HHSC to secure $11 million in federal funds for crisis counseling, serving more than 200,000 in need.
More work, however, must be done to protect the mental health of children across Texas suffering from other forms of trauma, including bereavement. Researchers at the TAG Center are finding that youth most at risk for PTSD following Harvey had lost a loved one beforethe storm. Mental illnesses can present in childhood, with 50 percent emerging by age 14, and higher rates among vulnerable, underserved youth who daily are confronted with adversity. We need to do more to help these families obtain better access care.
Fortunately, the governor and Legislature are bringing together medical schools to support family doctors and increase their capacity to both identify the mental health needs of children and better equip parents and caregivers —our children’s first and most important source of support — to make informed decisions to prevent and resolve mental health concerns when they arise.
Leading health systems have already shown we can dramatically reduce rates of infectious disease and beat back the ravages of cancer. Similarly, with the support of state leaders, our medical leaders can provide Texas with proven treatments beyond just medication to help children heal from emotional wounds. Texas families and children deserve no less.
Disclosure: Texas Children’s Hospital and the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.