Trauma expert warns Katrina victims' degree of optimism one year later could change
The results of a comprehensive mental health study of Hurricane Katrina survivors found the proportion of people with serious mental health illness doubled in the months after the hurricane compared to a survey carried out several years before the hurricane; however, thoughts of suicide among the same population did not increase.
“The levels of suicidality were lower than we anticipated following a traumatic event,” said Russell T. Jones, professor of psychology and trauma expert in the College of Science. “What we see is something called post traumatic growth playing a very important role here.” Jones is part of the research team carrying out the multi-year, million dollar study by Harvard Medical School and funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health.
According to the study most respondents: 88 percent said they felt a deeper sense of meaning in their life since the disaster; 83 percent realized they had greater inner strength than they thought they had; and over 80 percent felt they had a greater ability to rebuild their lives than they first thought.
“We don’t know how stable these beliefs will be over time,” Jones said. “To the extent that these individuals’ expectations are met, they may continue to be optimistic.”
Jones pointed out the importance that the Harvard study will follow the same group of individuals over several years. “The study of disaster victims over time is critical,” Jones added. “Less than five percent of studies follow disaster victims more than a year after the event.”
Jones also suggested the publication of the findings was an excellent opportunity to make meaningful and lasting changes in disaster preparedness and recovery. “We want to continue to build on people’s optimism, hope and strength,” he said.
Jones is crusading for a new level of emergency preparedness across the nation that brings social service professionals, government leaders, health professionals, educators and others together in partnership to achieve what he calls the “gimbal” effect of maximal thrust and maximal efficiency.
Jones is also working to raise the awareness of disparities in areas such as housing, education and employment that he says existed before Hurricane Katrina and were made even worse by the disaster. He and three prominent colleagues from across the country are conducting training for crisis workers in the Gulf states to educate them in cultural and diversity sensitivities to help build trust and encourage victims to be more receiving of assistance.
As a consultant with the Disaster Technical Assistance Center, part of the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Jones made numerous trips to the Gulf Coast to assist in disaster relief efforts after Katrina struck last August. He has participated in trauma-related workshops in the gulf coast, presented at a Congressional hearing on disaster relief and accompanied First Lady Laura Bush on a visit to displaced children and their families and continues to correspond with the First Lady’s Office at the White House.
Jones received his bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University, his master’s and Ph.D. from Penn State University, and completed his clinical internship at Brown University. He also holds a secondary appointment at Yale University’s Child Study Center.
The College of Science at Virginia Tech gives students a comprehensive foundation in the scientific method. Outstanding faculty members teach courses and conduct research in biology, chemistry, economics, geosciences, mathematics, physics, psychology, and statistics. The college is dedicated to fostering a research intensive environment and offers programs in many cutting edge areas, including those in nanotechnology, biological sciences, information theory and science, and supports the university’s research initiatives through the Institute for Critical Technologies and Applied Sciences, and the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences. The College of Science also houses programs in pre-medicine and intellectual properties law.