Mental Health Risks for Hurricane Survivors

Added to Katrina's physical damage was accompanied by mental strain. Throughout the Gulf region, health officials and health workers say that depression and other disorders will affect the region's future. We have the first part of a series on mental health in Katrina's aftermath.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's good to hear that the Bordelons are holding up, but throughout the Gulf region, health officials and health workers warn that depression and other disorders will affect the region's future. Today NPR's Alix Spiegel begins a series on mental health after the storm.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

Nancy Howard is a counselor at the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center in Mississippi. Gulf Coast usually serves low-income clients, people with chronic mental disorders who can't afford to pay for private services. But since the storm hit, Howard says her clientele has changed. There are more middle-class people walking through her doors and more first-time users.

Ms. NANCY HOWARD (Counselor, Gulf Coast Mental Health Center): These people have never had help before, never sought psychiatric services before, and now they are because of the storm, stress of the storm. I'm going to say about half the people we see have never been in a mental health center before.

SPIEGEL: But they come anyway. They come because they don't know what else to do, like the 70-year-old woman that Howard met the day before.

Ms. HOWARD: She was a nurse, well-educated. She had been helping in this shelter with patients that had medical needs, and she was very frustrated because she couldn't get certain things for the patients, and she told me, `Quite frankly, I don't want to do that. I don't want to hurt myself, but I know that if this continues, I will.'

SPIEGEL: And it's not just the elderly who are affected by the disruption of their lives. According to another counselor, a 10-year-old girl from the shelter down the street was admitted to the center after she swallowed a bottle of her mother's aspirin. Then her father, blaming himself, also attempted suicide. Dr. Cheryl Bowers-Stephens is the head of mental health for the state of Louisiana, and she says that mental health problems are up all over her state.

Dr. CHERYL BOWERS-STEPHENS (Head of Mental Health, Louisiana): There's an increase incidence of people with symptoms suggestive of post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.

SPIEGEL: To get a sense of the scope of the problem, Dr. Bowers-Stephens asked the Centers for Disease Control for a rapid assessment of the mental health needs of the people in the New Orleans area. During the month of October, the CDC sent workers out into the field with a psychological assessment tool. This tool is a long series of questions, each scored from one to five, and four and five are considered high responses. Usually if subjects answer more than three of the questions with a high response, they're immediately referred to a mental health professional, and according to Bowers-Stephens, the number of people in the area who met the criteria for mental health referral was high.

Dr. BOWERS-STEPHENS: Roughly half, 45.3 percent, scored three or more high responses; 24.8 percent scored seven or more.

SPIEGEL: In other words, according to the CDC, almost half of the city of New Orleans is clearly in need of some kind of counseling, and almost 25 percent--that is, those who answered seven or more questions with a high response--are suffering from quite serious psychological problems. Bowers-Stephens says she's not surprised by the study, even though the numbers are significantly higher than those that came in for the last major trauma to afflict America, 9/11.

Dr. BOWERS-STEPHENS: With other emergencies, like 9/11, the Pentagon or airplane crashes, it's immediate. It happens. It's--you know, but this is prolonged, and I think it's because of that, we anticipate to probably have a higher incidence of full-blown, say, post-traumatic stress disorder than maybe other emergencies.

SPIEGEL: Unfortunately, like every sector of government in the state of Louisiana, resources are stretched thin at the Department of Mental Health. In late October, Bowers-Stephens says she was asked to reduce her budget.

Dr. BOWERS-STEPHENS: At this point, we are preparing a 5 percent cut. I don't know if it'll go beyond 5 percent or not.

SPIEGEL: Mental health professionals in the area say that psychiatric services, particularly in-patient beds, were inadequate before Katrina hit. But with increased needs and reduced resources, in the months to come, demand should be even more difficult to meet. For NPR News, this is Alix Spiegel in Washington.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, emergency medical technicians deal with problems at work and at home. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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