Study Examines the Mental Health of Community College Women Who Lived Through Hurricane Katrina

Christina Paxson, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University is the lead author of a study on the mental health of low-income mothers in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, used 2003 data on the mental health status of women at community colleges throughout the United States. Some 532 women in the study were at three community college campuses in New Orleans. To learn about the impact of the hurricane on the mental health of these women, two follow-up interviews of the New Orleans women were conducted 11 months after the hurricane and five years after the hurricane. While some of the women remained in New Orleans, many had left the city for other states.

The follow-up surveys compared the women’s mental state in 2003 to see if they were suffering from psychological distress or showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. The results showed that although stress levels were reduced from the first follow-up survey, 30 percent of the women continued to be under psychological stress in the later survey. One third still showed signs of post-traumatic stress.

“I think Katrina might be different from a lot of natural disasters in the sense that it completely upended most people’s lives,” Professor Paxson said. “About two-thirds of the sample is back in the New Orleans area, but almost nobody lives in their old home. So they’re living in new communities. They’ve been disrupted from their friends and their families. The whole fabric of their lives has really been changed.”

Co-authors of the study were Elizabeth Fussell, an associate professor of sociology at Washington State University; Jean Rhodes, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston; and Mary Waters, the M.E. Zukerman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University.

Professor Paxson is a graduate of Swarthmore College. She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. She plans to continue tracking the mental health of these women over the longer term.

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