Katrina Affecting Psyches Beyond the Gulf Region

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Psychiatrist and commentator Elissa Ely has found that Hurricane Katrina has had a profound impact on many of the patients she sees at a community clinic in Boston.


Commentator and psychiatrist Elissa Ely sees patients at a community mental health facility in Boston. She's watched and listened as they deal with the news from the Gulf Coast.


All morning patients have been coming in with forms to fill out as usual and for refills as usual, but they'd also been speaking in their own ways about what was not usual. One man thought he might have been responsible for the levees breaking and worried that the state of Massachusetts was going to execute him on behalf of the state of Louisiana. A woman who was often manic but seemed transiently lucid asked why President Bush hadn't opened the floors of the White House to evacuees. `He should stop showing up in New Orleans and bring people to Washington,' she said. `He's got the room.'

The last patient of the morning was a war veteran. He'd seen his sister killed by a truck when she was six. He'd seen a childhood friend shoot himself while they were playing Russian roulette with his father's pistol. He suffered from rage attacks, depression, nightmares. He talked about his traumas in uncontrollable detail. The records said he had made 22 suicide attempts. On our first meeting he described himself as a violent drunk but never, he said, to a woman, a child or an honest citizen.

He wore the usual uniform: head scarf like a flag, leather jacket on a warm day, bullet necklaces, skull rings, gun buckle belt, motorcycle boots. It was as if he traveled with his own entourage. He unzipped the jacket and took off his shades. He sat down and blinked once or twice in the office light. `My cousin and me have been bagging blankets all night,' he said, `boxing up stuff. He knows who to ship to down there. I'm going back after this. I wish I could do more. I'm just here for refills.' He had no time to talk about his own symptoms. At the moment and in the foreseeable future, the many were more important than the one. Tragedy was familiar to him; memories waited around the corner. But now he was busy. He tapped a boot and his jewelry rattled. `Gotta go,' he said, folding the prescriptions and zipping them into his jacket. Then he left to do more.

BLOCK: Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist in Massachusetts.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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