Health Care

Mental Health Needs in Katrina's Wake

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Fefugees heading out of New Orleans obviously need food, shelter and medical attention — but disaster experts warn that victims of Hurricane Katrina also may need mental health care to deal with the trauma of surviving the storm.

ED GORDON, host:

Disaster experts warn that survivors of Hurricane Katrina may require psychological help to deal with their trauma. But right now, many are just trying to get basic needs met. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Craig Freeman is feeling pretty lucky to be in Baton Rouge, not New Orleans. He teaches journalism at Louisiana State University. Freeman moved his family, including a two-year-old and four-year-old, into his campus office because there was no power at his home.

Mr. CRAIG FREEMAN (Louisiana State University): The kids don't sleep well in the 90-degree heat.

KEYES: LSU is operating a staging area for medical evacuation vehicles, a special-needs shelter and medical triage on site. Freeman says he can see the choppers coming in from his office.

Mr. FREEMAN: The basketball stadium is where really sick people are, and so there are ambulances that are going in and out of there on a regular basis. At the track stadium, that's where they have the choppers going in and out. I think at the field house, they have people from New Orleans that didn't have any other place to go. And right outside of the track, you see FEMA lined up with, I want to say, 20 generators and, you know, trucks and command posts and all those kinds of things.

KEYES: Freeman says people with relatives in New Orleans are preparing to take in family for as long as six and seven weeks. One of his students is among them.

Mr. FREEMAN: She was about to move into her first apartment and was excited about having a one-bedroom and not having any roommates, and now her mother and father and brother are going to be going to moving in with her because their house in New Orleans is flooded.

KEYES: He says the business district is also affected.

Mr. FREEMAN: We had some kind of empty real estate, open buildings and open floors on buildings, and all those places are really filling up quickly as businesses try and relocate to Baton Rouge so they can continue their operation.

KEYES: There are refugees both on campus and in town, and Freeman says they're having a tough time.

Mr. FREEMAN: People are just kind of milling about. You know, nobody has anything to do. When I was downtown, there are just kind of packs of people wandering aimlessly. And so, again, they would go to fast-food places or, you know, to the couple of stores that are downtown, but, you know, really, you don't have anywhere you have to go or anything you have to do and so it's just kind of, you know, a purgatorial waiting period until you know what happens next.

Ms. LAUREN GINSBERG (Red Cross, Greater New York): Everybody is experiencing intense emotions, from fear to anger to intense sadness, and probably still shock as this has just happened.

KEYES: Lauren Ginsberg directs health and mental health for disaster services at the Red Cross in Greater New York. She understands the blank expressions seen on the faces of some refugees.

Ms. GINSBERG: And that is really just the initial shock, and to some degree, that is normal. You know, I think that that's really a way that we protect ourselves from such traumatic situations, and it's often helpful for us to remind ourselves that these are normal responses to extremely abnormal situations.

KEYES: She says increasingly in this country, people have seen horrific and shocking events happen on live television. After the 9/11 terror attacks, mental health professionals warned people to cut back on watching TV and being traumatized over and over again by what they saw. The same principle applies to this tragedy, says Ginsberg. She also says people should get help if they need it.

Ms. GINSBERG: After a period of time, if you are continuing to feel the same level of intense emotions, having difficulty sleeping after a significant period of time--I don't know that there is actually a right time. I think there is--it really is--if somebody feels like they need help, they should access it.

KEYES: But getting access may be difficult because the region's infrastructure is in shambles. As in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, victims and rescue workers that have responded to help will likely be deeply affected by this tragedy, Ginsberg says. She adds that the physical, mental and emotional losses will be with many for years to come. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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