Katrina's Psychological Impact Though two years have passed, Katrina has taken a major psychological toll on thousands of African Americans. Benson Cooke, president-elect of the Association of Black Psychologists, discusses his efforts to heal the emotional and mental wounds left in the storm's wake.

Katrina's Psychological Impact

Katrina's Psychological Impact

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Though two years have passed, Katrina has taken a major psychological toll on thousands of African Americans. Benson Cooke, president-elect of the Association of Black Psychologists, discusses his efforts to heal the emotional and mental wounds left in the storm's wake.


Maafa is a Kiswahili word meaning disaster or a great tragedy beyond human comprehension. It could be used to describe the psychological toll that Katrina has taken on thousands of African Americans.

Benson Cooke is the president-elect of the Association of Black Psychologists. In the days after Katrina, Cooke drafted guidelines for emergency mental health assistance. And, President-elect Benson, welcome.

Professor BENSON COOKE (President-elect, Association of Black Psychologists): Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

CHIDEYA: So are mental health professionals actually listening to what you said?

Prof. COOKE: We're beginning to, I think, have an impact. In fact, just a few weeks back, we had our convention of the Association of Black Psychologists in Houston, Texas. And during that convention, we had the third of our licensure certification and proficiency in black psychology series of workshops and seminars that's designed to really provide training and education for anyone working with African-American citizens, and in particular, it was an opportunity to really work with those who have been displaced in a number of levels after the catastrophic event of Hurricane Katrina and Rita.

CHIDEYA: Now, you make it a point of saying you've got to contextualize the culture and history of a group that you're trying to help. Why is that?

Prof. COOKE: Yes. When we had put the guidelines together. It was both myself and Dr. Kevin Coakland(ph) and Dr. Wave Nobles(ph), initially. The goal was to really begin to make it clear that it's important to look at where a person has been.

It's really interesting. Just a side note; As I was reading to some newspaper articles in Houston, Texas and looking at some blogs. And there are a number of people who continually make the statement that, you know, people should get over it by now, things should be done, you know, it shouldn't be an issue anymore.

But what's really important to understand is that in the field of medicine, in the field of law, and in particular, in the field of psychology, when someone comes in and they're presented with some kind of emotional concern, we have to do a cycle history. We have to find out how they got to where they were, which means we have to go back in the past. That helps them to begin to have a better understanding of contextualizing what it is that they can do and must do to begin to move themselves to a place where they can begin to be healthy and where healing can begin.

So in that context, it's important to contextualize the history and the culture of the people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina and to understand that when we heard reports of people being 50, 60, 70, 80, and in some cases, 90 years old, this was not the first natural disaster that they experienced. But in many instances, it continued to be a continuation of the victimization of, not only the storm, but the incompetence that follow.

It's important to keep in mind, as I was listening to your previous call with Ms. Johnson in New Orleans, talking about her belief and the resilience of faith and her belief in God, and that's kind of helping her to work through feelings of hopelessness and despair. It's important to recognize that that's the significant part of what we talk about when we talk about culture, and that needs to be contextualized because it represents that complex constellation of values, morals, norms, and in many instances, customs and traditions that provide us eternal(ph) design for living in a pattern of interpreting reality.

But another piece that's really important is contextualizing the history and understanding that, for many people who were of the ages that I spoke, they experienced possibly the great flood of 1927, which had many of the negative kinds of effects of people at the - failure at the municipal level, at the state level, at the federal level.

And then, we heard in many instances, when - for anyone who had an opportunity to view Spike Lee's movie "When the Levees Broke," and we heard people talking about, you know, the levee was blown to flood the Lower Ninth Ward while saving other areas. This was a cry that was heard during previous hurricanes. You can look at the hurricane that occurred - Hurricane Betsy that occurred in 1965.

CHIDEYA: So you have a situation where people believe they were actively hurt. But let me turn back to Ms. Marguerite, though.

Prof. COOKE: Yes.

CHIDEYA: She has experienced the death of a loved one, the loss of her home, the loss of income, the loss of stability. What can she or people like her do to just keep hope alive?

Prof. COOKE: Well, it's really important before I make my analysis here to understand that nothing like this has ever happened before. We've never lost a city. And so we really have to come to grips with the magnitude of what has happened. We also have to understand that we have to look at the systems that have already played an important role.

Early on, again, going back to her talk and discussion about belief in God. Black churches have always played a significant role in our community, and have given us hope through difficult times that we have faced since we have been in the United States.

The important part about that also is that trying to reconstitute and rebuild those churches becomes a very important part. Another issue, which we really need to take a very close look at, is that for many individuals, especially who were below the poverty line, they relied on hospitals because they where go into the emergency rooms for care because they lacked insurance.

Currently - well, prior to Hurricane Katrina, there were approximately seven hospitals in the area, now there are only three. We have to find a way to rebuild the hospitals. We have to find a way to replenish the medical support -prior to Hurricane Katrina, about 196 psychiatrists, about 26 now. So we're seeing a significant diminishing number of the services that could provide support. We've had a lot of volunteer help. We continue to need more of that in that particular area.

So it's understanding what can be done to work with the cultural influences that already exist in terms of helping to reestablish a sense of home, and at the same time, recognizing that we have to put, at a municipal and state and federal level, the financial resources into the medical community into the schools. There are very few school counselors anymore to work with the children who have been affected by this. So we have to look at a variety of different ways of bringing those kinds of resources back.

CHIDEYA: Well, we want to thank you so much for coming on and sharing this with us.

Prof. COOKE: Oh, as it's been a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Benson Cooke is associate professor of psychology and counseling at the University of the District of Columbia. He's also the president-elect of the Association of Black Psychologists. And he spoke with us from NPR's Washington, D.C. headquarters.

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