Hurricane Katrina:

Barriers to Mental Health Services for Children Persist in Greater New Orleans, Although Federal Grants Are Helping to Address Them

GAO-09-935T: Published: Aug 4, 2009. Publicly Released: Aug 4, 2009.

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This testimony discusses the protection of children during disaster recovery and to provide highlights of our July 2009 report entitled Hurricane Katrina: Barriers to Mental Health Services for Children Persist in Greater New Orleans, Although Federal Grants Are Helping to Address Them. The greater New Orleans area has yet to fully recover from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall on August 29, 2005. One issue of concern in the recovery is the availability of mental health services for children. In our report, we estimated that in 2008 about 187,000 children were living in the greater New Orleans area--which we defined as Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard parishes. Many children in the greater New Orleans area experienced psychological trauma as a result of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and studies have shown that such trauma can have long-lasting behavioral, psychological, and emotional effects on children. Poor children in this area may also be at additional risk, because studies have also shown that children who grow up in poverty are at risk for the development of mental health disorders. In 2007 the poverty rate for each of the four parishes in the greater New Orleans area was higher than the national average, and in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, the rate was at least twice the national average. Experts have found increases in the incidence of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, risk-taking behavior, and somatic and psychosomatic conditions in children who experienced the effects of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, children in greater New Orleans may continue to experience psychological trauma because of the slow recovery of stable housing and other factors, such as the recurring threat of hurricanes. Data collected by Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Sciences Center researchers indicate that of the area children they screened in January 2008, 30 percent met the threshold for a possible mental health referral. Although this was a decrease from the 49 percent level during the 2005-06 school year screening, the rate of decline was slower than experts had expected. Experts have previously identified barriers both to providing and to obtaining mental health services for children. Barriers to providing services are those that affect the ability of health care organizations to provide services, such as a lack of providers; and barriers to obtaining services are those that affect the ability of families to gain access to services, such as concerns regarding the stigma often associated with mental health services for children. The devastation to the health care system in greater New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina may have exacerbated such barriers.

Stakeholder organizations most frequently identified a lack of mental health providers and sustainability of funding as barriers to providing mental health services to children in the greater New Orleans area, and they most frequently identified a lack of transportation, competing family priorities, and concern regarding stigma as barriers to families' obtaining mental health services for children. A range of federal programs are helping to address these barriers, but much of the funding they provide is temporary. Among the 18 stakeholder organizations that participated in our structured interviews, the most frequently identified barrier to providing mental health services was a lack of providers. With regard to families' ability to obtain services for their children, 12 of the 18 organizations identified lack of transportation as a barrier. A range of federal programs address barriers to mental health services for children in the greater New Orleans area by supporting various state and local efforts--including hiring providers, assisting families, and utilizing schools as delivery sites--but much of the funding is temporary. Funding from several HHS programs has been used to transport children to mental health services. Federal programs also provide funding that is used to alleviate conditions that create competing family priorities--including dealing with housing problems, unemployment, and financial concerns--to help families more easily obtain children's mental health services. Louisiana has used federal funds to help support school-based health centers (SBHC), which have emerged as a key approach in the greater New Orleans area to address barriers to obtaining mental health services for children.

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