Children’s reactions to the 2010 Chilean earthquake: the role of trauma exposure, family context, and school-based mental health programming

Theoretically derived factors (preexisting child characteristics, trauma exposure, caregiver– child relationship, and school-based mental health programming) were examined as potential correlates of distress in children residing in the region closest to the epicenter of the 2010 Chilean earthquake. One year before the earthquake, 2nd-grade students who attended 9 schools that provide government-run mental health intervention programmes were assessed via parent and teacher reports for pre-intervention psychosocial difficulties. Between 3–6 months after the earthquake, a preexisting non-trauma focused, school-based intervention was delivered. Approximately 9 months post-earthquake, 117 of these children were interviewed about their experiences during the earthquake and their subsequent psychological responses.

Children were exposed to multiple disaster-related traumatic events; most reported posttraumatic stress (PTS) symptoms and 25.6% met criteria for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-defined probable PTSD. Female gender and exposure to violent, injurious, or death-related postdisaster traumas were correlated with PTS symptoms. Children’s reports of characteristics of the home environment (conflict with their caregiver, caregiver unavailability to discuss the earthquake) were positively associated with PTS symptoms. Children’s perceptions of caregiver unavailability to discuss the earthquake were associated with higher ongoing earthquake-related worry. Participation in the mental health intervention was associated with significantly lower earthquake-related worry and appeared to protect at-risk youth from elevated PTS symptomatology. Results suggest that participation in school-based mental health programs may be protective for children postdisaster and a negative family environment may be associated with increased postdisaster distress. Implications and potential applications of findings are discussed

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