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Culture strongly influences how young people cope with natural disasters, study finds

“We found that culture really matters in terms of how adolescents respond to a disaster.”

People wade through flood waters and building debris in New Orleans, Louisiana after hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans, Louisiana
People wade through flood waters and building debris in New Orleans, Louisiana after hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans, Louisiana
Image: Zuma Press/PA Images

DEMOGRAPHIC AND CULTURAL differences strongly influence the coping styles young people use when they’re affected by a natural disaster, a new study has found. 

The study determined that these disparities should be taken into account when providing services to help them recover from these traumatic experiences. 

University of Illinois social work professors Tara M Powell and Kate M Wegmann led the study, which used a new method of assessing coping among disaster-affected youths to address the limitations of a commonly used survey called Kidcope. 

“We know the way a kid copes after a disaster determines how well they’re going to overcome the experience or whether they develop problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or anxiety,” Power said. 

“However, one of the things we don’t know is the best measure that researchers and clinicians can use to assess young people’s post-disaster coping methods.” 

 Coping strategies

The current study explored the coping strategies used by middle-class teenage girls in St Tammany Parish, an affluent area of New Orleans, after the area was damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

Of the 650 girls studied, about 82% reported that the hurricane forced their families to evacuate their homes. 

Six months after Katrina, the girls completed an adapted version of the Kidcope assessment. 

The survey is used to examine children’s and teenagers’ use of behaviours such as distraction, social withdrawal and social support to handle major stressors, including natural disasters.

However, the researchers noted that one limitation of Kidcope is that it was designed for use in clinical settings to examine young people’s coping with serious illnesses and lengthy hospitalisations – contexts that differ from natural disasters.

Hurricane Katrina Aftermath Aerial view of damage from Hurricane Katrina on the Highway 90 in Gulfport. Source: Zuma Press/PA Images

Cultural differences

To address these inconsistencies, the authors tested three different structural models to find the best fit with their study population of young hurricane survivors. 

They found that the coping strategies used by the girls in New Orleans resembled a four-factor structural model, which included positive coping behaviours along with less healthy externalising behaviours such as blame and anger, wishful thinking and social withdrawal.

The researchers compared these girls’ coping behaviours with those used by a sample of low-income, predominately African-American peers who also survived Hurricane Katrina.

They found few similarities. 

Instead, the St Tammany Parish girls’ coping methods were more consistent with those used by middle-class youths who were affected by a different natural disaster – Hurricane Andrew, which struck the Bahamas, Florida and Louisiana in 1992, Wegmann said.

“We found that culture really matters in terms of how adolescents respond to a disaster,” Wegmann said.

Some of the cultural values that are associated with resilience, such as a focus on community and informal means of support, are less prominent among middle-class populations than lower-income populations.

“Middle class and wealthier demographics’ cultural values are more about individualism and personal responsibility, so the communalism that can help a person recover from a disaster just isn’t there.”

Hurricane Katrina Aftermath Aerial view of massive flooding and destruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 4 September 2005 in New Orleans Source: Zuma Press/PA Images

Complex relationships 

The researchers also found that the behavioural strategies the St Tammany Parish girls used also had complex relationships with each other. 

For example, the coping strategy of attempting to forget about the problem, which was associated primarily with social withdrawal, also was associated with wishful thinking, blame and anger, and positive coping.

According to the authors, understanding how and why disaster victims use varying coping methods and the influences that demographic differences may have on their responses is hampered by the lack of consistent, reliable assessment tools.

Developing effective, well-validated measures that can be distributed easily and adapted for differing populations should become a research priority to better assist disaster survivors with recovery, Powell and Wegmann said.

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