Women and Post-Disaster Depression

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Viola Washington, a New Orleans resident, suffers from depression. Washington joins Dr. Vickie Mays, founder of an organization that provides mental health education and training in New Orleans. They talk about the mental stress that women face after disaster hits, and ways that they can recover.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Along with Hurricane Katrina, we've been talking about health issues this week, especially women's health. We've reported before in this program about the toll Hurricane Katrina has taken on the mental health of storm survivors. Women may be especially hard-hit because so many are heads of households, caring not just for themselves, but for children and seniors. And resources that helped everybody struggling with mental health issues have been severely strained by the storm.

Here to talk to us about this issue is Vickie Mays. She's a professor of psychology and she's founder of Helping Hands, Healing Minds, an organization that helps train community leaders in New Orleans on mental health recovery. She joins us from NPR West in Los Angeles. Also with us is Mrs. Viola Washington, the executive director of the Welfare Rights Organization. She's personally battled depression since Hurricane Katrina, and she joins us from New Orleans. Ladies, thank you both for being here.

Dr. VICKIE MAYS (Professor of Psychology; Founder, Helping Hands, Healing Minds): Thanks, Michel.

Ms. VIOLA WASHINGTON (Executive Director, Welfare Rights Organization): Thank you.

MARTIN: Ms. Washington, if I could start with you, would you share with us some of your story? What are some of the things that you experienced after the hurricane two years ago?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, I was here during - before the storm and during the storm and after the storm. Not being able to get out of this city for four days, we ran into a lot of situation that each day that we thought we would just - we was going to die from the water and from the - not having any food to eat, any water to drink and just moving around in this city trying to find shelter, dry areas. And when we did find places that were dry, we were found suffering and dying there so there was no safe place.

Since that time, I've been coping with my situation and trying to come back to life and be whole again, but two years later and I'm still suffering and many other people that I work with and talk to are going through the same, and it's just posttraumatic stress.

MARTIN: When did you realize that that's what it was?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, you know, I never seen a doctor and I just gave it a name because…

MARTIN: You still have never seen a doctor?

Ms. WASHINGTON: No, I have not. We don't have a lot of health care facilities here. And money is not available to pay for those things, so a lot of people are just coping with stress. And in the Welfare Rights Organization - we just started reorganizing that again - our first program was to do a needs survey. And our needs survey shows us that people are suffering here.

MARTIN: Do you think - forgive me, if it were available, do you think you'd go?

Ms. WASHINGTON: I think I would, because I think I really need to know when am I going to come out of this situation, you know, the way I feel. We come together as a circle of sisters most of the time, and just then.

MARTIN: Professor Mays, what you're hearing - and can I just say, Ms. Washington, thank you so much for talking to us about this.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Sure. Sure.

MARTIN: I'm sure that's not easy, so I just wanted to…

Ms. WASHINGTON: No, it's not. (unintelligible)…

MARTIN: …say thank you right up front about that.

Ms. WASHINGTON: …but it's not easy.

MARTIN: And, Professor Mays, is this what - is what you're hearing here from Ms. Washington common?

Dr. MAYS: What she's describing is common, and that's kind of the sad state of affairs in America, which is mental health services are not on par with health services. Katrina was unique. You know, usually what happens is that you have a disaster, and what people are recovering from is the disaster. But in this instance, people recovering not just from a disaster, but as Ms. Washington describes, there are things that have gone on and on and on over several days. I mean, things that are equivalent to that are like war, you know, where you have individuals who face some threatening event, and then they face it yet again and yet again and yet again.

And typically, what we see in soldiers is posttraumatic stress disorder. That's what you're seeing down in New Orleans, but you're also seeing an increase in alcohol and drug use. You're also seeing anxiety disorders. You're also seeing, for example, the violence that is being responded to by bringing in state troopers. That lawlessness that you're seeing is really people's hopelessness. It's really people's frustration. And rather than calling out the state troopers to keep people in order, we need to be having community events where people can speak their minds and find each other and find comfort in the fact that they did survive.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about coping with and recovering from disaster.

With me is Vickie Mays and Viola Washington.

Professor Mays, I wanted to ask you, you know, you don't live in New Orleans…

Dr. MAYS: Sure.

MARTIN: …but you travel there often. Would you talk to me about your organization and how it works?

Dr. MAYS: As a psychologist, what I've done is brought psychologists together from across the country who came into New Orleans. We trained well over 200 and something mental health providers last year. But what's happening is each time that we go back as a group to do this, we find that there are less and less professionals who have stayed. That's…

MARTIN: Because they're burned out?

Dr. MAYS: Some of them have just incredible caseloads and find themselves, you know, burned-out, overwhelmed, don't have the places to refer people to, and so what's happening is some of them are leaving.

MARTIN: Professor Mays, I need to ask, though, given that many of these professionals are leaving, what would be helpful here? What I hear you say, first, is that there's a dire need for more mental health professionals in the area…

Dr. MAYS: Right.

MARTIN: …working in the area.

Dr. MAYS: Yes.

MARTIN: Until that happens, what?

Dr. MAYS: Well, until that happens, I think one other thing - and this is what Helping Hands, Healing Minds is attempting to do. There are others who have agreed to step up to the plate to be able to do some of the counseling. For example, the ministers, people are going to them for pastorial care and pastorial counseling, and we're encouraging people to do that. We're also equipping them with a better sense of when it is that people should be referred for, say, medication. You know, right now, it's like we can get you probably to a health provider faster than we can get you to a mental health provider.

The other thing is also that there has always been in this country a big self-help movement. And this is the time to also bring people together to be able to talk about what they're going through so that people have a sense of, well, what did you do to get through this and how did that help you?

MARTIN: Let me stop you there and bring Ms. Washington back in and say, Ms. Washington, what about that? Are there some things that you have found to be helpful? And are there some things that you would caution the well-meaning from repeating?

Ms. WASHINGTON: I think some things that have been helpful for me is that coming together and just really listening to each other's stories.

Dr. MAYS: Oh, yes.

Ms. WASHINGTON: And then you can share to let them know you are not in this alone, you know? I know a lot of people who have resolved to alcohol, drug use, (unintelligible) and violence take place inside of the homes, you know, family violence. And I think a lot - and all of that stems from the hopelessness that families have.

MARTIN: Professor Mays, what can other Americans do to be helpful here?

Dr. MAYS: We still need people, for example, to go and volunteer to help people to rehab. We still need, for example, the students who go down as our law students or public policy students or architecture students to volunteer their time to help people to get recovery underway. We still need people to give money. It's not over. Even though it's two years, there are parts of New Orleans that look like it was a week ago after Katrina. The recovery is going too slow. It needs to go faster.

MARTIN: Vickie Mays is the founder of Helping Hands, Healing Minds. She joined us from our studios at NPR West. Mrs. Viola Washington is executive director of the nonprofit Welfare Rights Organization. She joined us from New Orleans. Ladies, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Dr. MAYS: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Thank you for having me.

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