COMFORT IN A CATASTROPHE
- Research Paper
Each year, multiple natural disasters affect the United States, costing millions of dollars in damages and impacting businesses and individuals, which is significant. So far, this year alone, already 8 weather/climate disaster events have occurred costing over $1 billion, an amount that is particularly shocking considering we are currently only halfway through 2021. These events, which include storms, fires and droughts, do not include other types of disasters, such as the building collapse in Surfside, Florida. (https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/) When the addition of man-made disaster is added, it is obvious that disaster situations affect large numbers of people in the United States annually. The last data from 2017 indicates that man-made disasters account for 118 events, affecting nearly 3,000 individuals. (https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-man-made-disasters)
Children are impacted by disasters in ways that definitely have long lasting outcomes. For many reasons children are impacted in greater numbers than adults are during a disaster. This has to do with the disaster itself, but also the potential injury or loss to their parent or primary caregivers which leaves children feeling unsafe and insecure during a time of critical brain development. This added to the loss of home and possessions creates a situation of anxiety and vulnerability for children and sends a message to them that the world is out of their control and is a very frightening space. Families become displaced and this also causes the child to lose the extended social network of teachers and other caregivers they had prior to the disaster.
These sudden unexpected and shocking changes in the child’s life can lead to mental health concerns. (Kousky)
Children’s education was also disrupted by natural disasters. Schools being closed and/or destroyed, the relocation of a family interrupting school (post-Katrina when families moved across the country, they encountered difficulty enrolling their children in school because they had no vaccine records or school records to submit for enrollment).
There are also physical reactions to trauma that can end up affecting children’s mental health. For instance, it has been shown that children who experience trauma at critical times in child development can also experience biological stress responses that negatively impact their brain development. (DeBellis). All of these issues create a storm of impacts on children that include disruption to education, and issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression. In addition, brain development can be affected causing difficulty in learning in addition to issues with long term memory. (https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/effect-trauma-brain-development-children)
Children’s mental health can be overlooked during a disaster because of the pressing needs of physical services, such as food, fresh water and housing. There are little resources made available to children of disaster in the acute phases of disaster, and this causes long term implications for those children (https://www.srcd.org/research/understanding-impacts-natural-disasters-children). Post-disaster, essential items are often donated, but mental health services are not. In fact, following a disaster, all forms of health care, including mental health, are often disrupted or not available, and new situations regarding mental health are often not discovered or treated. (https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.2007.07030502) Children need
mental health services to help them process the trauma associated with disasters in order to help them avoid long term impacts from the experience of the disaster. Providing children with comfort items can assist in long term mental health recovery following a disaster.
Looking back, Hurricane Katrina was one of the largest natural disasters to have occurred
in the United States, Hurricane Katrina. (https://www.fema.gov/disaster/historic) Some of the long term impacts are that child survivors of Hurricane Katrina suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and depressions due to relocations. (Hansel) When following the children of Katrina long term it was found that these children experienced educational disruptions in much higher numbers compared to children prior to the hurricane. These children had much higher rates of depression, anxiety, behavioral problems, and post-traumatic stress disorder. All of these issues affected their ability to engage in school because it made them less likely to attend school regularly. In fact, in a “study conducted by Harvard researchers found that in the years after Katrina, serious student mental health concerns negatively impacted school performance and every day life at rates three times higher than pre-disaster rates.” (https://eab.com/insights/expert-insight/strategy/lessons-aftermath-hurricane-katrina-support-pandemic-recovery/)
In the development of children, comfort objects are part of children developing independence and learning to comfort themselves. Comfort items are also called “transitional objects” and they are used to lesson parental separation anxiety and to soothe and comfort children. Psychologists believe that these items “one stronger and more resilient in the face of difference and trauma,” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-guest-room/201407/more-just-teddy-bears) Conversely they also believe that “In addition, the usage,
availability and consideration of such objects can enhance the connectedness between child and adult and amongst children themselves.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-guest-room/201407/more-just-teddy-bears).
Since the use of comfort items is a natural process in child development in the development of self-comfort, it is natural to use these items in the comfort of children affected by trauma caused by many sources, including disaster. In times of trauma, these items can be important to helping children process trauma and to have a friend walk through the trauma experience with them. (Amey) In this way, providing children with comfort items is a form of mental health services, allowing the child to experience the disaster with less anxiety. These comfort items can also assist parents and caregivers in assessing the way the child is processing the trauma, and then help them figure out how to best support the children. Children experience trauma differently than adults and since so many children are impacted by disasters, including the current disaster of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to discuss and address their mental health following disaster events.
Children who were interviewed about their use of comfort items described them as anxiety relieving, comforting, cuddly, able to act as confidantes, and as items assisting in feeling secure. (Roig) Studies regarding comfort items for children show that these items alleviate stress, while also comforting children during times of trauma. The comfort item could be “a blanket, a teddy bear, or a piece of cloth.” (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ833505.pdf) Studies have shown the use of a teddy bear is helpful in healing trauma and creating safety and security attachments. On study even stated that “the use of the stuffed animal in psychotherapy can be used as a source of comfort, displacement or tool for grounding skills”. (Montalbo)
It can be concluded from this information that providing the soothing comfort of a comfort bear to a child in crisis such as following a disaster would in fact reduce stress in times of trauma when there are little mental health services available, and that in turn, long term impacts on children of disaster would be reduced. Therefore, one of the ways to offer comfort to children in such emergency situations is to offer comfort items, such as stuffed animals.
Amey, SE. "Transitional Objects, Phenomena, and Relatedness: Understanding and Working with Individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder. ." Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (1996): 2(5)143-151.
DeBellis, MIchael. "The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma." Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America (2014): 185-222.
Hansel, TC. "The effect of long-term relocation on child and adolescent survivors of Hurricane Katrina." Journal of Trauma Stress (2013).
Kousky, Carolyn. "Impacts of Natural Disasters on Children." Future of Children (2016).
Montalbo, Agnes. "Stuffed Animal as a Source of Comfort in Group Psychotherapy." Research Journal of Social Science and Managment (2016).
Roig, Enrique. "The Use of Transitional Objects in Emotionally-Disturbed Adolescent Inpatients." International Journal of Adolescence and Youth (1987): 1:1, 45-58.