Teens Suffer Emotional Fallout From Disaster

Dutch study finds many turn to alcohol to cope

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FRIDAY, Aug. 29 (HealthDayNews) -- Teens may act invincible and fearless, but disasters such as fires, tornadoes and other life-threatening events can take a great toll on their mental health, Dutch researchers report.

To cope, the researchers found, teens tend to turn to excessive use of alcohol. And girls tend to display more mental health problems than boys.

The team's findings come from an examination of young people in the aftermath of the 2001 New Year's Eve fire in a Volendam cafe , which killed 14 teens and wounded 250. The researchers evaluated 124 youths, who were 12 to 15 years old and included 31 who had been at the harborside cafe when the blaze broke out.

The researchers, who report their findings in the Aug. 30 issue of The Lancet, evaluated depression, anxiety, aggression and other mental health barometers and compared them to data from 830 teens of the same ages from two other schools in the Netherlands whose students weren't involved in the fire.

The Volendam teens had a 75 percent increased rate of overall mental health symptoms, says study author Dr. Sijmen Reijneveld, an epidemiologist at TNO Prevention and Health, the Netherlands Organization of Applied Science Research in Leiden.

Scores for depression, anxiety, incoherent thinking and aggression were approximately three times greater for the Volendam teens than for students from the other two schools, but alcohol abuse was more than four times more likely among those in Volendam.

The increases in alcohol abuse and mental health scores were similar for Volendam teens directly involved in the fire and those not directly involved, and the increases in mental health difficulties were larger for girls than for boys.

Why did students overuse alcohol but not other drugs? "Probably the main explanation is that these are ordinary Dutch youths, who, in this age group, have already used alcohol sometimes," Reijneveld says. "Other drugs are out of their scope, relatively."

And as for girls appearing to have more difficulty, he says that may be due to girls more easily expressing their emotions in this age group.

The results, he adds, are probably applicable to American youth.

While researchers knew disasters affect teens, the new study, Reijneveld says, contributes "higher quality evidence." The findings, he hopes, will be incorporated into the planning of post-disaster programs. The finding about alcohol abuse should be known, so counselors can be aware of the possibility, he says.

The findings bear out to another expert, Jackie Shipp, a licensed professional counselor for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Oklahoma City. She counseled teens after a recent spate of tornadoes there.

She finds boys and girls exhibit their reactions to disaster differently. "Boys do more acting out -- anger and aggression. Boys also have anxiety and depression, but they are more comfortable moving into their anger and aggression. Girls are less comfortable showing anger and aggression."<.>

Reijneveld's advice for loved ones of teens? "Pay attention to teens experiencing such events. School may be a very good medium for doing so. " The concern is preserving mental health, and preventing alcohol dependence.

>Adds Shipp: Parents might look for a teen support group after a disaster. "Teens work well with each other," she says. "And that is what teens will tell you. They would rather talk to a peer, or talk to someone close to their age."

More information

For information on how to help a teen after a disaster, visit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Working Group on Youth Violence. For what teens can do after a disaster, see US Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and mental Health Services Administration.

SOURCES: Sijmen Reijneveld, M.D., epidemiologist, TNO, the Netherlands Organization of Applied Scientific Research, Leiden, Netherlands; Jackie Shipp, L.P.C., licensed professional counselor, Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Oklahoma City; Aug. 30, 2003, The Lancet
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