Food shortages, damaged homes, fear of death, loved ones leaving. The cumulative stresses of Hurricane Maria contributed to thousands of schoolchildren developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in Puerto Rico, according to a new study.
Researchers found that 7.2% of the students — about 1 in 14 — reported “clinically significant” symptoms of the disorder commonly known as PTSD. Girls were more likely to show signs of PTSD than boys, according to the report published Friday in the journal JAMA Network Open.
The study authors surveyed 96,108 public school students five to nine months after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory in 2017. The cohort included children in third through 12th grades across different regions of the island.
The Puerto Rico Department of Education, which partnered with the Medical University of South Carolina, is using the data to target areas with the greatest need for mental health services, the study said.
It had dramatic effects on the students. Nearly 46% said their homes were damaged. More than 32% experienced shortages of food and water. And roughly 58% had a friend or family member leave the island.
Study leader Rosaura Orengo-Aguayo, a clinical psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the findings showed the breadth and indiscriminate nature of the devastation.
“That just speaks to how big Maria was, how destructive Maria was island-wide,” she said. “And it didn’t matter what your income was or your location was on the island — you were affected.”
Similar problems have been reported among children in other parts of the Caribbean also affected by hurricanes in 2017.
The trauma caused by a natural disaster can manifest itself in a variety of ways, said Frank Zenere, district coordinator of the crisis management program at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, who was not associated with the study. Family units can break down through divorce or domestic violence, he said. Young children can revert to thumb-sucking or wetting the bed. Teens sometimes try to exert control by acting out or turning to drugs to self-medicate.
“It has impact on their life,” said Zenere, who helped coordinate mental health efforts in Puerto Rico in Maria’s aftermath. “But the great majority are not going to develop psychiatric illness.”
Zenere said the gender differences found among students aligned with existing literature — boys are more likely to act out, while girls are most likely to show depression and anxiety.
The study’s authors said the loss and disruption caused by Maria contributed about 20% toward the youth’s symptoms of PTSD. Although the researchers did not measure what other circumstances played a role, other “protective factors” — like eventually securing basic needs and community support — influence resiliency, Orengo-Aguayo said.
Notably, she said, the level of PTSD symptoms reported in the study was lower than what was expected. Some studies suggest up to one-third of children will develop chronic symptoms after surviving a natural disaster, the authors wrote.
Familial ties or the fact that the study was conducted several months after the storm could have played a role in the children’s resilience, Orengo-Aguayo said. Or the children might still be attuned to trying to survive.
“What we might be seeing is that children at that stage were still focused on getting access to basic needs,” she said.
Regan Stewart, a clinical psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina who worked on the study, said the team had secured two grants from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to continue work on the island for at least three more years. It plans to expand access to mental health services and train school staff and mental health professionals on trauma-focused interventions.
Public schools in Puerto Rico, however, are burdened by economic constraints. The island — already facing a budget crisis — closed 300 schools over the last two years due to a lack of enrollment exacerbated by Hurricane Maria.
Zenere said school staff members were among those who needed to be cared for first, “because they’re going to be the glue that keeps it together for that classroom of 20 children or so.”