A young girl wearing light blue clothing sips a juice while sitting inside a shelter near a yellow plastic chair

The Big Fix

In the face of climate change, children must build resilience to cope with PTSD

Two hurricanes hit Central America back-to-back in November. Watching as your neighborhood gets ripped apart is a risk for developing depression and anxiety among young people.

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A young hurricane victim sips juice inside a shelter in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Nov. 21, 2020.

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Delmer Martinez/AP

It’s been a record-breaking year for the number of Atlantic storms so powerful that they were given names. Central America has been hit hardest, experiencing two hurricanes, Eta and then Iota, in the span of weeks. These disasters have left hundreds of thousands displaced and hundreds dead, mostly in coastal areas of Nicaragua and Honduras.

The rise in storm activity is unprecedented, according to climate scientists. While the number of storms may not be a direct result of climate change, the increase in strength, speed of intensification and amount of rainfall can be attributed to rising sea temperatures that directly result from global warming.

Related: 2020 Atlantic hurricane season so intense it ran out of names

Beyond the loss of hundreds of thousands of homes and hundreds of lives, a more incalculable scourge is also affecting people in the path of these storms: mental health, particularly among young people.

Experiencing the horror of your neighborhood being ripped apart by a hurricane is a well-documented risk for developing depression, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to experts.

Residents of Nicaragua and Honduras still recall the impacts of Hurricane Mitch, which struck their coasts in 1998, and killed nearly 10,000 people, according to statistics from the National Hurricane Center. After the hurricane, a study from Nicaragua found that tens of thousands of adolescents in the country had some form of PTSD and depression, without access to mental health services.

In the hardest-hit cities, the vast majority of children were suffering from some mental health disorder, with symptoms including nightmares, feelings of numbness and trouble concentrating. Global children’s organization Plan International provided mental health services to help young people cope. 

Verónica Zambrano, Plan International’s Honduras director, shared her observations with The World's Marco Werman about how mental health services can help children become more resilient in the aftermath of Eta and Iota. 

Marco Werman: What's been the impact of these storms in Honduras? What are the conditions like in the shelters? 

Verónica Zambrano: Honduras is living one of the worst crises in its history. There have been 3 million people affected by the hurricanes. We have families and children that have been taken away from their homes and they had to run to shelters to survive. The conditions in the shelters are also very difficult because Eta came and they were already saturated. So Honduras is going through a very, very, very difficult and sad time. 

So, 3 million people affected, in a country of 9 million — fully a third of the country, in one way, impacted by these storms. And we have to remember, there's COVID-19. Surviving a hurricane, living through one, would be a terrifying experience for anyone, but especially for kids — destruction, death all around you, not knowing whether you and your family will survive. Maybe you've been separated from your family. We know intense storms have been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in young people. What kind of mental health impact does this have on kids? 

We have to think about boys, and we have to think about girls, and we have to think of these emotional reactions that you have when, as you were describing, you lose your house, you are taken out of your family, you're separated from your family, and you have emotional reactions — fear, terror, insecurity. Then you go into the shelter and then you are bored, you're irritable, you are so sad, you don't know what is happening. There are also reactions and behavior, and maybe some of them will have depression, they will feel apathy. They will be isolated, intolerant to things, and that is when violence comes in. 

Related: Pandemic complicates hurricane preparedness

You're also active in providing services when storms have not had a major impact. Along with UNICEF, you run a project called Pro Niñez (For Children), which trains community psychologists and helps thousands of children get mental health services. Why is it important to have this infrastructure and training already in place before a storm? 

When we work with children, with boys and girls, this helps them a lot to be resilient, because you work on self-esteem and life projects, and you become empowered. So when the crisis comes, you have built this resilience that makes you be able to receive the trauma in a better condition and also come out of the trauma also in a better condition, learning from that crisis. 

So, Verónica, our segment on the show, "The Big Fix," is all about climate change solutions. And it sounds like what Plan International is doing is providing solutions for kids affected by climate change. I guess that's where we're at in the world today. So, let me ask you: Storms like this are expected to get worse with climate change — what do we need to do differently to prepare kids for this new normal? 

Absolutely. And that's exactly the origin of the problem. Honduras is the country most affected by climate change, in the words of the president of the Republic of Honduras. How can you believe that you can have two hurricanes, six days apart, Eta and then Iota? Our children are receiving that. What happens now? We don't have the analysis of what is really going to be the impact in the country. What is going to happen with migration, with caravans? Because people don't have anything to eat, this is why the caravans exist. And the migration from Honduras to Guatemala to Mexico to the US happens in what conditions? And they take children with them. So the problem and the impact are not yet on the agenda, but the cause is absolutely — as you have said — climate change. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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