Play, Stress Management Combat Childhood PTSD

Article excerpt

SAN FRANCISCO -- A behavioral medicine program of play combined with stress reduction and management techniques significantly reduced symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in a group of children whose community had been decimated by two consecutive hurricanes.

Play is a natural healing force for children, Carmen Russoniello, Ph.D., said at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. "We believed that since recreation is inherently healing, we could perhaps meld it into a structured program that would help these kids learn to cope with what had happened to their school and community."

In 1999, two consecutive hurricanes flooded eastern North Carolina, destroying homes and schools; 51 people died. Dr. Russoniello, director of the psychophysiology and biofeedback lab at East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C., created the program in response to pleas from school administrators in one of the flood-devastated communities. Their elementary school was destroyed; all the students were relocated to trailer classrooms near the federal disaster management site.

"These children had lost their school, and almost 40% had their homes flooded," he said. Many of the children watched helicopters flying in and out of the community rescuing their families and feared that they would die. "They had experienced a terrifying event," he said.

It was a perfect opportunity not only to try and help the children cope with their experience but also to study posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children--an area that has received little attention.

"Until rather recently, we thought PTSD didn't occur in children," he said. "We now know that it does and that the symptoms can have devastating effects on their health and performance, including depression and anxiety, and school and social problems."

The intervention began with a baseline assessment of PTSD symptoms in the school's fourth graders, 6 months after the hurricanes hit, said Susan McGhee, Ph.D., also of East Carolina University. In the group of 150 children (mean age 9.5 years), PTSD (as measured by the Posttraumatic Stress Reaction Index, child version) was very severe in 9%, severe in 25%, and moderate in 36%. …