- Psychological Issues
Helping young people avoid or overcome emotional problems in the wake of violence or disaster is one of the most important challenges a parent, teacher, or mental health professional can face. The National Institute of mental health and other Federal agencies are working to address the issue of assisting children and adolescents who have been victims of or witnesses to violent and/or catastrophic events. The purpose of this fact sheet is to tell what is known about the impact of violence and disasters on children and adolescents and suggest steps to minimize long-term emotional harm.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., both adults and children are struggling with the emotional impact of such large-scale damage and losses of life. Other major acts of violence that have been felt across the country include the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. While these disastrous events have caught the Nation’s attention, they are only a fraction of the many tragic episodes that affect children’s lives. Each year many children and adolescents sustain injuries from violence, lose friends or family members, or are adversely affected by witnessing a violent or catastrophic event. Each situation is unique, whether it centers upon a plane crash where many people are killed, automobile accidents involving friends or family members, or natural disasters such as the Northridge, California Earthquake (1994) or Hurricane Floyd (1999) where deaths occur and homes are lost—but these events have similarities as well, and cause similar reactions in children. Even in the course of everyday life, exposure to violence in the home or on the streets can lead to emotional harm.
research has shown that both adults and children who experience catastrophic events show a wide range of reactions.1,2 Some suffer only worries and bad memories that fade with emotional support and the passage of time. Others are more deeply affected and experience long-term problems. research on post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd) shows that some soldiers, survivors of criminal victimization, torture and other violence, and survivors of natural and man-made catastrophes suffer long-term effects from their experiences. Children who have witnessed violence in their families, schools, or communities are also vulnerable to serious long-term problems. Their emotional reactions, including fear, depression, withdrawal or anger, can occur immediately or some time after the tragic event. Youngsters who have experienced a catastrophic event often need support from parents and teachers to avoid long-term emotional harm. Most will recover in a short time, but the few who develop ptsd or other persistent problems need treatment.
An NIMH Snapshot
The National Institute of mental health (NIMH) is a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Government’s principal biomedical and behavioral research agency. NIH is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The actual total fiscal year 2000 NIMH budget was $974 million.
To reduce the burden of mental illness through research on mind, brain, and behavior.
How Does the Institute Carry Out Its Mission?
“Trauma” has both a medical and a psychiatric definition. Medically, “trauma” refers to a serious or critical bodily injury, wound, or shock. This definition is often associated with trauma medicine practiced in emergency rooms and represents a popular view of the term. Psychiatrically, “trauma” has assumed a different meaning and refers to an experience that is emotionally painful, distressful, or shocking, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.
Psychiatric trauma, or emotional harm, is essentially a normal response to an extreme event. It involves the creation of emotional memories about the distressful event that are stored in structures deep within the brain. In general, it is believed that the more direct the exposure to the traumatic event, the higher the risk for emotional harm.3 Thus in a school shooting, for example, the student who is injured probably will be most severely affected emotionally; and the the student who sees a classmate shot, even killed, is likely to be more emotionally affected than the student who was in another part of the school when the violence occurred. But even second-hand exposure to violence can be traumatic. For this reason, all children and adolescents exposed to violence or a disaster, even if only through graphic media reports, should be watched for signs of emotional distress.
Reactions to trauma may appear immediately after the traumatic event or days and even weeks later. Loss of trust in adults and fear of the event occurring again are responses seen in many children and adolescents who have been exposed to traumatic events. Other reactions vary according to age:4-7
For children 5 years of age and younger, typical reactions can include a fear of being separated from the parent, crying, whimpering, screaming, immobility and/or aimless motion, trembling, frightened facial expressions and excessive clinging. Parents may also notice children returning to behaviors exhibited at earlier ages (these are called regressive behaviors), such as thumb-sucking, bedwetting, and fear of darkness. Children in this age bracket tend to be strongly affected by the parents’ reactions to the traumatic event.
Children 6 to 11 years old may show extreme withdrawal, disruptive behavior, and/or inability to pay attention. Regressive behaviors, nightmares, sleep problems, irrational fears, irritability, refusal to attend school, outbursts of anger and fighting are also common in traumatized children of this age. Also the child may complain of stomachaches or other bodily symptoms that have no medical basis. Schoolwork often suffers. Depression, anxiety, feelings of guilt and emotional numbing or “flatness” are often present as well.
Adolescents 12 to 17 years old may exhibit responses similar to those of adults, including Coping With Flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, avoidance of any reminders of the traumatic event, depression, substance abuse, problems with peers, and anti-social behavior. Also common are withdrawal and isolation, physical complaints, suicidal thoughts, school avoidance, academic decline, sleep disturbances, and confusion. The adolescent may feel extreme guilt over his or her failure to prevent injury or loss of life, and may harbor revenge fantasies that interfere with recovery from the trauma.
Some youngsters are more vulnerable to trauma than others, for reasons scientists don’t fully understand. It has been shown that the impact of a traumatic event is likely to be greatest in the child or adolescent who previously has been the victim of child abuse or some other form of trauma, or who already had a mental health problem.8-11 And the youngster who lacks family support is more at risk for a poor recovery.12
Early intervention to help children and adolescents who have suffered trauma from violence or a disaster is critical. Parents, teachers and mental health professionals can do a great deal to help these youngsters recover. Help should begin at the scene of the traumatic event.
According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder of the Department of veterans Affairs, workers in charge of a disaster scene should:
After violence or a disaster occurs, the family is the first-line resource for helping. Among the things that parents and other caring adults can do are:
When violence or disaster affects a whole school or community, teachers and school administrators can play a major role in the healing process. Some of the things educators can do are:
Most children and adolescents, if given support such as that described above, will recover almost completely from the fear and anxiety caused by a traumatic experience within a few weeks. However, some children and adolescents will need more help perhaps over a longer period of time in order to heal. grief over the loss of a loved one, teacher, friend, or pet may take months to resolve, and may be reawakened by reminders such as media reports or the anniversary of the death.
In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, and in the weeks following, it is important to identify the youngsters who are in need of more intensive support and therapy because of profound grief or some other extreme emotion. Children and adolescents who may require the help of a mental health professional include those who show avoidance behavior, such as resisting or refusing to go places that remind them of the place where the traumatic event occurred, and emotional numbing, a diminished emotional response or lack of feeling toward the event. Youngsters who have more common reactions including re-experiencing the trauma, or reliving it in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections during the day, and hyperarousal, including sleep disturbances and a tendency to be easily startled, may respond well to supportive reassurance from parents and teachers.
As mentioned earlier, some children and adolescents will have prolonged problems after a traumatic event. These potentially chronic conditions include depression and prolonged grief. Another serious and potentially long-lasting problem is post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd). This condition is diagnosed when the following symptoms have been present for longer than one month:
Rates of PTSD identified in child and adult survivors of violence and disasters vary widely. For example, estimates range from 2% after a natural disaster (tornado), 28% after an episode of terrorism (mass shooting), and 29% after a plane crash.13
The disorder may arise weeks or months after the traumatic event. PTSD may resolve without treatment, but some form of therapy by a mental health professional is often required in order for healing to occur. Fortunately, it is more common for traumatized individuals to have some of the symptoms of PTSD than to develop the full-blown disorder.14
As noted above, people differ in their vulnerability to PTSD, and the source of this difference is not known in its entirety. Researchers have identified factors that interact to influence vulnerability to developing PTSD. These factors include:
Research has shown that PTSD clearly alters a number of fundamental brain mechanisms. Abnormal levels of brain chemicals that affect coping behavior, learning, and memory have been detected among people with the disorder. In addition, recent imaging studies have discovered altered metabolism and blood flow in the brain as well as structural brain changes in people with PTSD.15-19
People with PTSD are treated with specialized forms of psychotherapy and sometimes with medications or a combination of the two. One of the forms of psychotherapy shown to be effective is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. In CBT, the patient is taught methods of overcoming anxiety or depression and modifying undesirable behaviors such as avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event. The therapist helps the patient examine and re-evaluate beliefs that are interfering with healing, such as the belief that the traumatic event will happen again. Children who undergo CBT are taught to avoid “catastrophizing.” For example, they are reassured that dark clouds do not necessarily mean another hurricane, that the fact that someone is angry doesn’t necessarily mean that another shooting is imminent, etc. Play therapy and art therapy also can help younger children to remember the traumatic event safely and express their feelings about it. Other forms of psychotherapy that have been found to help persons with PTSD include group and exposure therapy. A reasonable period of time for treatment of PTSD is 6 to 12 weeks with occasional follow-up sessions, but treatment may be longer depending on a patient’s particular circumstances. Research has shown that support from family and friends can be an important part of recovery.
There has been a good deal of research on the use of medications for adults with PTSD, including research on the formation of emotionally charged memories and medications that may help block the development of symptoms.20-22 Medications appear to be useful in reducing overwhelming symptoms of arousal (such as sleep disturbances and an exaggerated startle reflex), intrusive thoughts, and avoidance; reducing accompanying conditions such as depression and panic; and improving impulse control and related behavioral problems. Research is just beginning on the use of medications to treat PTSD in children and adolescents.
There is accumulating empirical evidence that trauma/grief-focused psychotherapy and selected pharmacologic interventions can be effective in alleviating PTSD symptoms and in addressing co-occurring depression.23-26 However, more medication treatment research is needed.
A mental health professional with special expertise in the area of child and adolescent trauma is the best person to help a youngster with PTSD. Organizations on the accompanying resource list may help you to find such a specialist in your geographical area.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a part of the Federal Government’s National Institutes of Health, supports research on the brain and a wide range of mental disorders, including PTSD and related conditions. The Department of veterans Affairs also conducts research in this area with adults and their family members.
Recent research findings include:
NIMH-supported scientists are continuing to conduct research into the impact of violence and disaster on children and adolescents. For example, one study will follow 6,000 Chicago children from 80 different neighborhoods over a period of several years.38
It will examine the emotional, social and academic effects of exposure to violence. In some of the children, the researchers will look at the role of stress hormones in a child or adolescent’s response to traumatic experiences. Another study will deal specifically with the victims of school violence, attempting to determine what places children at risk for victimization at school and what factors protect them.39
It is particularly important to conduct research to discover which individual, family, school and community interventions work best for children and adolescents exposed to violence or disaster, and to find out whether a well-intended but ill-designed intervention could set the youngsters back by keeping the trauma alive in their minds. Through research, NIMH hopes to gain knowledge to lessen the suffering that violence and disasters impose on children and adolescents and their families.
The General Public can obtain publications about PTSD and other anxiety disorders by calling NIMH’s toll-free information service, 1-88-88-ANXIETY, or calling the Institute’s public inquiries office at 301-443-4513. Information is also available online from NIMH’s Web site: Anxiety Disorders. The accompanying resource list indicates agencies or organizations that may have additional information about helping children and adolescents cope with violence and disasters.
Reporters interested in PTSD and other anxiety disorders may contact the NIMH press office at (301) 443-4536.
All material in this fact sheet is in the public domain and may be copied or reproduced without permission from the NIMH. Citation of NIMH as the source is appreciated.
|Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS). CMHS is a component of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, working with the Center for Mental Health Services’ Emergency Services and Disaster Relief Branch (ESDRB), provides funding support for mental health services following a disaster. The Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program is implemented at the request of a state or territory when a “Major Disaster” has been declared by the President. Funding for the Crisis Counseling Program (CCP) is not automatic. Funding is provided if the need is beyond the means of state and local providers. Legislative authority is based on the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Assistance Act, Section 416 (Public Law 100-707). There are three components to the CCP program: Immediate Services, Regular Services, and Training and Preparedness. The 60-day Immediate Services Program (ISP) provides services from the date of the incident. The Regular Services Program (RSP) follows the ISP when there is a proven need and provides services for up to 9 months. A week-long training program is completed each year for state mental health authorities to assist in planning for mental health response to disasters. For more information about the CCP program, call the Emergency Services and Disaster Relief Branch, CMHS, at 301-443-4735.|
| National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)|
Information Resources and Inquiries Branch
6001 Executive Boulevard, Rm. 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
PTSD/anxiety disorders Publications:
Public Inquiries: 301-443-4513
Media Inquiries: 301-443-4536
Web site: http://www.nimh.nih.govCenter for Mental Health Services (CMHS)
1 Choke Cherry Road
Rockville, MD 20857
Web site: http://beta.samhsa.gov/about-us/who-we-are/offices-centers/cmhs
http://beta.samhsa.gov/about-us/contact-usU.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202
Web site: http://www.ed.govU.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001
Web site: http://www.justice.gov/
Federal Emergency Management Agency
| National Center for Victims of Crime|
2111 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22201
Web site: http://www.victimsofcrime.org/National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA)
1757 Park Road, NW
Washington, DC 20010
Phone: 1-800-879-6682 or 202-232-6682
Web site: http://www.try-nova.orgOffice for Victims of Crime Resource Center
National Criminal Justice Reference Service
P.O. Box 6000
Rockville, MD 20850
Web site: https://www.ncjrs.gov/American Psychiatric Association
1400 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 1-888-357-7924 or 202-682-6000
Web site: http://www.psych.org
American Psychological Association
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
NIH Publication No. 01-3518
Updated: September 21, 2001