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Clinic Pioneered Post-Disaster Counseling

September 04, 1986|LAEL MORGAN | Morgan is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

The day after Sunday's Aeromexico disaster, three counselors from the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department were dispatched to suburban Cerritos. They were there to help ease the grief of families touched by the tragedy.

Among those the counselors spoke with were children. Twenty years ago, the youngsters might have been overlooked.

Emergency counselors first focused their attention on how children react to catastrophe after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. Much of what is known today about children and disaster comes from work done by the San Fernando Valley Child Guidance Clinic in that quake's aftermath.

"Before that, people didn't even know that children reacted strongly to disasters," said Dr. Stephen J. Howard, director of development and training at the Northridge clinic. Of all potential disasters, the threat of earthquake carries the greatest anxiety because people feel so helpless, Howard said.

"For children it may be a Freudian influence," Howard said. "We talk about 'Mother Earth,' and I think there's a reason for that. The earth gives life to everything on the planet. To think that the firm ground, to which they are so accustomed, can actually shake and move, it's a very disturbing idea. Nothing is permanent. Nothing we can be sure of . . . even the earth that we're walking on. That's a rude awakening."

There are ways to prepare a child for the eventuality of a major quake, however, and established techniques for dealing with the emotional aftershocks that Howard and his colleagues have perfected since the jarring Sylmar quake.

Results of the clinic's research were published in a booklet titled "Coping With Children's Reactions to Earthquakes and Other Disasters" that is a best seller at the national Office of Emergency Preparedness in Washington, D. C.

The booklet has been translated into Spanish and Vietnamese and is distributed throughout the world. Its crisis intervention procedures have become routine for the Red Cross and other public-health agencies.

Howard had never experienced an earthquake when he immigrated from his native Poland to California in 1950. He gave little thought to the first quake he weathered here in 1956 but, after the Sylmar shake-up, he became involved on a personal level. His Studio City house was not in the epicenter and sustained only minor damage.

"But it shook like a freight train," recalled his wife, Bebe. "We all ended up in the hall, trying to get to my daughter's room. Afterward, I remember, I made hot cocoa. We wanted something sweet and hot. We were in shock."

Their daughter, Jackie, who was 9 at the time, was very upset.

Children Found to Be Frightened

"I called Mrs. Norma Gordon, one of the psychologists who worked at the clinic who had a son a year older," Howard said. "We compared notes on and decided if our two children were scared, other children might be, too."

There followed an announcement by the clinic that it would assist any children or families who had reacted with anxiety to the quake.

"We were not prepared for the 350 families who showed up," he said, "but every one of us took a group of people."

A heavy storm followed the Sylmar quake, and many of the children reacted to thunder for the first time. Some even became frightened of the sound of trucks on the freeway. Most of the disturbed children were grammar-school age and the clinic counseled them with their families in groups of about 25 or 30.

"One of the first things we did was encourage parents to admit they were afraid, too," Howard said. "What they were communicating to their children was, 'We're not afraid and you are.' The children believed something was wrong with them.

"Our people dealt with the commonality of the experience. Everybody was afraid. It's not unusual to be afraid. And, secondly, we got them to talk about it. Parents thought that talking would only increase the anxiety. It may at the time it's being discussed, but once the discussion is over, the children are less frightened of it and better prepared for the next earthquake."

Clinic counselors also used desensitization, alternating rattling sounds comparable to those of an earthquake with relaxation techniques.

Howard reported that often a single group session served to quell fears and the majority of patients felt confident to return to a normal routine within two weeks. Most longstanding behavior problems--nightmares, troubled sleeping, generalized anxiety--had dropped to 50% at the end of one year, he says.

The study "was very important because most authorities before that felt children recovered very quickly, . . . after a few weeks," he said. "But our research showed it took much longer."

About 1% of the children needed extensive counseling of up to six months. These youths were not reacting just to the quake, he suggests, but suffering from deeper problems that the trauma of the quake brought to the surface.

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