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Between December 10 and 11, 2021, a series of 61 tornadoes tore through the Midwestern and Southern United States, claiming 88 lives in a season not typically marked by such disasters (Feuerstein & Livingston, 2021). Due to climate change, such extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity across the globe (United Nations, 2021). Climate-related disasters have devastating effects for entire communities, but disproportionately impact certain populations, including school-aged children (Ersoy & Kocak, 2016; Raker et al., 2020). In this article, we consider children’s disaster-related mental health as it relates to school environments, which are both potentially supportive and particularly vulnerable settings in post-disaster contexts.

Impact of Climate-Related Disasters on Children

The effects of climate-related disasters on children’s mental health and well-being are both direct and indirect. Common post-disaster mental health symptoms seen in children, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive symptoms, are strongly influenced by characteristics of the disaster itself, including its severity and the child’s disaster-related experience, including the extent of their personal loss and peritraumatic emotional responses (Pfefferbaum et al., 2016). In addition to PTSD and depressive symptoms, many disaster-exposed children face social network disruption, declines in academic performance, increased inattention, aggressive behavior, and somatic complaints (e.g., headaches, stomachaches) (Overstreet et al., 2011).

Children’s enhanced post-disaster vulnerability is largely indirect, however, driven by disasters’ effects on their larger socio-ecological context. The reactions of parents and other adults in the broader community contribute to how a child reacts to and copes with disaster-related stressors (CDC, 2020; Lai et al., 2018). Research conducted three years after Hurricane Katrina, for example, found that children’s internalizing and externalizing symptoms were strongly influenced by their mothers’ psychological distress (Lowe et al., 2012). Several other studies similarly indicate the role of the family unit in shaping children’s post-disaster mental health (Cobham et al., 2016). Relatively fewer studies have attended to disasters’ harmful indirect effects spanning beyond the family context. In one exemplary study, Felix and colleagues (2013) found that community factors, such as neighborhood violence and teachers’ attitudes, shaped children’s risk of psychiatric symptoms in the aftermath of Hurricane Georges, which devastated Puerto Rico in 1998. Such findings indicate the need for comprehensive and multidimensional interventions to promote children’s post-disaster well-being.

Schools as Sources of Children’s Post-Disaster Resilience

Schools are trusted and established institutions that are potentially well-suited to provide information, resources, and mental health support to disaster-affected children and their families (Felix et al., 2013; Lai et al, 2016; Pfefferbaum et al., 2012). Physically, schools serve as shelters, distribute food and medical care, and give children and families a familiar and safe place to go after a disaster (Ersoy & Koçak, 2016; Garfin et al., 2014; Lai et al., 2016). Simply returning to school after a disaster can reduce children’s psychological stressors and provide a sense of safety and normalcy by enforcing a familiar routine (Felix et al., 2013). Pre-existing school-based mental health programs have been shown to significantly lower anxiety and PTSD symptoms in children when delivered both pre- and post-disaster, suggesting great potential to promote youth resilience (Garfin et al., 2014). Students have cited their schools and teachers as helpful in processing their emotions, understanding why climate-related disasters happen, setting realistic expectations of future risk, and delivering encouraging and hopeful messaging (Mohammad & Peek, 2019; Pfefferbaum et al., 2012). However, climate-related disasters—particularly as they accumulate due to climate change—can put significant strain on existing systems and disrupt schooling through physical destruction of school buildings, school closures, displacement of families, increased community violence, and emotional stress on teachers, administrators, and other school personnel (Ersoy & Koçak, 2016; Garfin et al., 2014; Mohammad & Peek, 2019; Pfefferbaum et al., 2016). Additionally, when mental health support structures are not already integrated into school systems, they can be difficult to implement in the aftermath of disasters.

Even when school-based mental health systems are in place, teachers are often the first point of contact for students who are experiencing post-disaster psychological distress (Prinstein et al., 1996). Teachers often feel under-trained and under-resourced to assess and intervene with students experiencing mental health symptoms. For example, in a post-disaster study of teachers in the Netherlands, over half were not equipped to recognize PTSD symptoms in children, and only 9% had training on how to support children who had been exposed to a traumatic event (Alisic et al., 2012). Without adequate training and support, teachers simultaneously face the challenge of supporting their students while coping with their own disaster-related stressors and distress—which could compromise both their recovery and their ability to meet students’ needs. Additionally, the lack of trained psychologists in school settings makes it difficult for students to obtain psychological care, which is especially worrisome as schools are often the first point of contact for children with mental health concerns and a particularly accessible space for child mental health services (Belfer, 2006; Le Brocque et al., 2017). Schools are one of the few places that have a regular presence in all children's lives. Other institutions, such as afterschool programs and individual counseling, typically only reach a subset of children, making school the ideal setting for mental health interventions following climate-related disasters.

Moving Forward: Supporting Children and Schools

Addressing children’s mental health symptoms following climate-related disasters requires both pre- and post-disaster interventions. Such interventions can be delivered in school-based settings—but only if school systems are adequately supported in training their staff and implementing mental health programming. Before a disaster strikes, teachers and other school personnel would benefit from basic training in assessment, so that they can recognize common post-disaster mental health symptoms in their students and know the proper channels through which to refer them for services. Post-disaster school-based mental health programs could encompass the three-tier system described by Pfefferbaum and North (2016), including: universal strategies to promote students’ coping skills and wellness (Tier 1); specialized interventions that alleviate distress among students with high levels of disaster exposure or acute reactions (Tier 2); and highly specialized therapeutic approaches to reduce disaster-exposed children’s clinically significant symptoms (Tier 3).

In summary, schools have a vital role in providing mental health care and support for children after climate-related disasters, which may become even more essential as such events increase in frequency and intensity. While further research is needed to provide greater insight into how climate-related disasters influence educational systems and, in turn, children’s well-being, it is clear that, with adequate support and resources, schools can be a powerful driver of children’s post-disaster resilience.

About the Authors

Marie-Claire Meadows, BA, is a second-year MPH candidate at the Yale School of Public Health in the Department of Chronic Disease Epidemiology. Her research interests include the long-term physical and mental health effects of natural disasters, climate change, and climate disaster preparedness and response. Marie-Claire works as a research assistant on several projects focused on climate change-related disasters, including the Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) project, air pollution, and climate-induced migration. She received her bachelor’s in global health from the University of Connecticut in 2020. 
Noelle Serino, BA, is a first-year MPH candidate at the Yale School of Public Health in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Her research interests include the intersection of health equity and health policy reform, community-based participatory research, environmental and reproductive justice, and climate disaster preparedness and response. She currently collaborates with the RISK Project and Prevention Research Center/Community Alliance for Research and Engagement, as well as the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington’s Community Health Department. Prior to her studies at Yale, she received her BA in public health and justice, law & criminology from The American University in 2021.
Emily Goddard, BA, is a first-year MPH candidate at the Yale School of Public Health. Her research interests include the impacts of climate change on mental health and environmentally driven disease prevention. She is most interested in exploring ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change that balance environmental sustainability with human wellbeing. Emily is a research assistant with the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health Policy Impact Unit and the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement, as well as a student associate with the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health, and a 2050 Fellow with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment. She received her bachelor’s degree from Vassar College in 2015. 
Sarah Lowe, PhD, is a Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, with a secondary appointment in the Department of Psychology at Yale School of Medicine. Her research focuses on the long-term mental health consequences of a range of potentially traumatic events, as well as the impact of such events on other domains of functioning, such as physical health, social relationships, and economic well-being. Dr. Lowe received her PhD from the University of Massachusetts Boston and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Psychiatric Epidemiology Training program at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.


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