Katrina Survivors Continue to Struggle With Mental Health, Study Finds

Survivors of Hurricane Katrina have struggled for years with poor mental health, a study of low-income mothers in the New Orleans area finds.

Launched in 2003 with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Griswold Center for Economic Policy Studies at Princeton University, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation, the project began as a study of low-income adults enrolled in community colleges around the country, including three in New Orleans. After Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, researchers decided to continue to track the New Orleans-based participants. The sample includes 532 low-income mothers, most of them African American, spread across twenty-three states; participants were interviewed eleven months and nearly five years after the storm.

The study found that even after four years, roughly a third of participants still exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress, while 30 percent exhibited psychological distress. Though levels for both conditions were down from the first follow-up eleven months after the storm, they had not fallen back to pre-hurricane levels.

"On average, people were not back to baseline mental health and they were showing pretty high levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms. There aren't many studies that trace people for this long, but the very few that there are suggest faster recovery than what we're finding here," said Christina Paxson, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton and lead author on the study. "I think the lesson for treatment of mental health conditions is don't think it's over after a year. It isn't."