Social Work's Role in Preserving Youth Mental Health Following a Disaster

Saturday, January 17, 2015: 10:00 AM-11:45 AM
Balconies M, Fourth Floor (New Orleans Marriott)
Cluster: Mental Health
Derrick Kranke, PhD, Veterans Administration
The goal of this roundtable is to promote discussion about social work’s role in K-12 school preparedness in meeting the mental health demand of youth in the aftermath of a natural disaster (hurricane, earthquake, tsunami or tornado).  Recent reports demonstrate that school social workers and counselors are not equipped to handle a surge in demand following a disaster. Currently, the ratio of school social workers to students is approximately 250:1, however, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2012) strongly suggests that the ratio of social workers to students when providing services to students with intensive needs not exceed 50:1.  In addition, the American School Counselor Association (2012) recommends a counselor to student ratio of 250:1, however, in some states that ratio exceeds 1000:1.  Less than 20% of states “require schools to have someone oversee or coordinate mental health and social services” (Brener, Martindale & Weist, 2009, p. 307).

Natural disasters occur in the US an average of 21 times per year, affecting almost 867 million people, and causing economic damage of more than $10 billion (Kousky, 2012; Prevention Web, 2011). Although being victimized by the damage or loss of life from a disaster does not impact every person, when disaster does strike, it is traumatic and can have repercussions that destroy families, homes, schools and communities for many years to come.

Clearly, if a disaster is to strike in a school setting where counselors/social workers are understaffed, the effects have the potential to exacerbate the psychological damage to pupils.   Some form of mental health treatment may be necessary for youth to cope with the threat and fear of danger associated with trauma.   Indeed, schools need to prepare for natural disasters because there is much at stake with regards to student sense of safety, which ultimately impacts their academic performance and quality of life (Sinclair, 2005).  Preparedness has implications for youth victims of disasters because they are at the intersection of life-altering events, particularly school success, attainment of developmental milestones, and mental well-being; any interference could be devastating as they transition to adulthood.

Research shows the feeling of danger among youth victims in the education environment contributes to educational disparities by increasing the likelihood of withdrawal and/or isolation from school (Flannery, Wester & Singer, 2004; Janosz et al., 2008), students’ problematic behavior at school, or a decline in academic performance (Janosz et al., 2008; Overstreet & Braun, 2001). 

Since K-12 students spend a majority of their days in educational settings, “Schools are widely acknowledged as the major setting in which activities should be undertaken to . . . prevent the development of unhealthy behaviors” (Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010, p. 138).   School settings have critical roles in disaster preparedness, as counselors/social workers often provide mental health services to youth whose access to treatment may be disrupted because of disasters. Indeed, this discussion is a step to recognizing the role of social work and resources that can help equip school social workers to handle a surge in demand of youth disaster victims.

See more of: Roundtables