Hurricane Harvey’s Lasting Mental Health Impact on Children
By: Sherri Gragg
Thousands of Children Displaced
In November 2017, KHOU Channel 11 completed a survey of Houston area schools concerning Hurricane Harvey’s impact on local children. They found that in the Houston area alone, 22,208 students remained homeless almost three months after the storm made landfall. The statistic reflects not only the overwhelming physical needs of the children of Southeast Texas, but a daunting mental health crisis born out of the trauma those children experienced during the storm.
According to the Texas Education Agency, the trauma children experienced as the flood waters rose could negatively impact the mental health of children for many months to come. These children are likely to experience a wide range of symptoms including increased anxiety, feelings of helplessness, learning difficulties, and a surge in disruptive behaviors resulting in discipline offenses. (Hurricane Harvey’s Impact on the Mental Health of Children, Youth and Adults, TEA)
Mother of three and member of Kingwood UMC, Brooke Sabrsula, has witnessed the lingering effects of Harvey most clearly on her son Andrew, age seven. “The first three months after the flood were the worst,” Sabrsula said, “He changed. His drawings at school were all just black. Everything he drew had to do with the flooding and Harvey.”
The night Harvey made landfall, flood waters rose with breathtaking speed around the Sabrsula home. As the water poured into the house, the family retreated upstairs to safety. The family huddled in their quiet, dark home as it filled with water, listening as cabinet doors drifted open and their belongings, carried by the rising tide, began to bump into walls and furniture. “We prayed a lot,” Sabrsula said. “Helicopters were pulling our neighbors to safety in little baskets. Eventually the Coast guard offered to take us too but I couldn’t imagine putting my 2-year-old daughter in a helicopter basket. We decided to wait for a boat.”
It was a long wait. Boat after boat attempted to reach the family only to find the current too swift to navigate. Finally, a large fishing boat came to the rescue. Sabrsula will never forget the terror of handing her younger children into the arms of the rescuers in order to save them.
A year past Harvey, Andrew is improving as he processes his trauma. His drawings are slowly returning to the lighthearted subject matters more typical for an elementary school boy. Even so, Sabrsula says his struggle is far from over. He still mentions the hurricane daily and suffers from nightmares. He has not slept in his own bed since Harvey,” Sabrsula said.
Sabrsula has been intentional in searching for ways to help her children heal. She and her husband have begun exploring the possibility of trauma therapy for the children. She has also shared her own techniques for coping with anxiety with the children, including practicing intentional gratitude. Once their home was gutted and dry, she brought all three children back to the house to find a way to help them reframe their loss. “I gave them sharpies and told them to write on the studs of the house,” she said. “We have everything from ‘Go Astros!’ to scripture. Now we will be forever encased in sweet words of hope and faith.”
And although Andrew struggled a bit to find points of light in the darkest season of his short life, he eventually achieved it. As the Sabrsula family was mucking and gutting their home, friends dropped off a feast of snacks and junk food to sustain them. In doing so, they were speaking Andrew’s love language. “I got to have Coke and Snickers and chips!” he said. The exercise in thankfulness was contagious. A few days later, he looked down at the baseball themed t-shirt he was wearing and found another source of gratitude. “This t-shirt!” he said, “Someone gave me this t-shirt during Harvey.”
And empowered by a thankful heart, Andrew is on his way to healing.
Five Ways to Help Children Process Trauma
- Be an attentive and empathetic listener.
- Assure your child that his or her feelings are completely normal.
- Remind children frequently that they are safe.
- Help your child grow in resiliency by teaching effective coping skills.
- Provide trauma focused therapy for your child.