Hurricane on the Brain

Study documents psychological strain on students displaced by Katrina.
December 15, 2005

Even if they escaped physical harm, students displaced by Hurricane Katrina may well be feeling the strain on their minds and pockets.

A survey that compared displaced students who landed at Southeastern Louisiana University to students who were already there, found that the displaced students are experiencing more stress over their financial situations, and over half reported feeling depressed within the week before they filled out the survey in November.

David Shwalb and Barbara Shwalb, assistant psychology professors at Southeastern, gathered responses to the survey, developed at the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University, from 315 displaced students, and 510 regular students. The Shwalbs pointed out that even the “regular” students watched the hurricane rip through their region, though they did not have to switch institutions.

Fifty-three percent of the displaced students reported feeling some depression, compared to 35 percent of the regular students. Eighty-eight percent of the displaced students reported feeling “stressed out,” perhaps not a surprise coming from college students, but only 68 percent of the regular students felt stressed out.

David Shwalb said changes and losses are two fundamental categories of stress producing events. Fifty-three percent of the displaced students reported losing their jobs, and 44 percent said they lost their home. Fourteen percent have had to cope with the death of a friend or family member. Others said they lost things ranging from cars to romantic relationships that became strained by the circumstances.

As to changes, they’ve been plentiful for displaced students, and grim financial turns seem to top the list. Sixty-six percent of the relocated students reported increased worries about paying for college. “That seems to be the number one topic,” Barbara Shwalb said. “They don’t know where their money is coming from.”

Some of the descriptions that displaced respondents gave of their feelings resemble those from war veterans. “They’re describing life as surreal,” Barbara Shwalb said. “For a lot of these 18 or 19 year old kids, it was their first week away from home, and the things they experienced were horrific.”

The hurricane, though, actually had some positive effects on some students. David Shwalb said that more students reported decreased motivation than increased motivation, but some did say “’I’m going to try hard now. I feel lucky I got out this,’” he said. Barbara Shwalb added that “some of the students have become more politically astute.”

As visceral memories of the hurricane fade, some students will recover fully. Others, however “won’t just heal by themselves,” David Shwalb said. The Shwalbs said that only about 2 percent of the respondents reported having seen a counselor.


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