Mental Issues Surge, Suicide Rates Flat Post-Katrina A new study says that mental health problems roughly doubled in the months after Hurricane Katrina, but thoughts of suicide among those with mental problems actually decreased. The finding of reduced suicide runs counter to many other reports. It's the first report of a federally funded tracking survey of the mental health needs of about a thousand pre-hurricane residents of the Gulf states.

Mental Issues Surge, Suicide Rates Flat Post-Katrina

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Bells will toll, wreaths will be laid, and a jazz funeral will wind through the streets of New Orleans today. It's been one year since Hurricane Katrina, the nation's worst natural disaster, roared ashore in the Gulf Coast. President Bush is in New Orleans to mark the anniversary. Yesterday in Mississippi, he acknowledged that recovery efforts will take years. Nearly 1,600 people died in Louisiana, and even if not affected first hand, many people were troubled by the destruction and suffering reported in the media.


A new study highlights the difficulty of assessing mental health in the region now. It finds that serious mental health problems have roughly doubled since the storm, yet thoughts of suicide among the regions' mentally ill has actually gone down.

Here's Allan Coukell of member station WBUR.

ALLAN COUKELL reporting:

As the hurricane approached, Jaime Penton(ph) and her husband Bill made the hard choice that he would evacuate with their kids - age two and three - while she stayed behind in her job as a dispatcher in the sheriff's office of St. Bernard Parish. There across the river from New Orleans, she experienced the devastation first hand.

Ms. JAIME PENTON (Dispatcher, Sheriff's Office): My house went underwater. St. Bernard was pretty much demolished - most of the parish, you know.

COUKELL: Penton stayed on the job helping the rescue crews and keeping the office running. It was stressful, but with hindsight, she says the hurricane was a test she'd been waiting her whole life to face and she passed.

Ms. PENTON: I didn't have a bath for five days, you know. We were eating bags of potato chips. We pulled out the water, cleaning them with bleach water and all, and you realize, you know, you're stronger person than you think because you did what you had to do to survive. And I'm proud of myself for it.

COUKELL: Penton's response isn't unique. New results from a study conducted early this year show that eight out of 10 people from the region said they discovered new inner strength because of their experiences after the storm. Almost nine out of 10 said that Katrina had led them to a deeper sense of meaning or purpose in life.

Ron Kessler of Harvard Medical School led the study, which appears in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.

Mr. RON KESSLER (Harvard Medical School): After disasters, it often happens that the people who survive feel - in the midst of the sadness and the depression and the anxiety - some positive feelings like just this thrill of being alive, feeling closer to their loved ones, having a deeper purpose in life, feeling that something special happened to them - and it means they have been selected and they want to go on.

COUKELL: Like Jaime Penton, most of those in the study were emotionally healthy. But in the aftermath, some struggled with anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems. Kessler estimates that Katrina doubled the prevalence of such problems, accounting for about 200,000 additional people with symptoms serious enough to affect their day-to-day lives. Psychiatrists usually expect suicide to increase along with depression, but Kessler found that thoughts of suicide among people with mental health problems actually decreased. He attributes the effect to those feelings of growth that so many people experienced. Not everyone is convinced.

Dr. JIM BARBEE (Psychiatrist, New Orleans): The survey really does not fit what I'm hearing in my patients at all.

COUKELL: Jim Barbee, a New Orleans psychiatrist, says Kessler's study may reflect a unique moment of optimism from the early months after the storm.

Dr. BARBEE: In my own experience, as the months have worn on - particularly since the beginning of the year here in 2006 - there's been a lot more depression and a lot more suicidal ideation in the patients that I'm seeing.

COUKELL: Mental health services in the region have yet to recover. Advocates say many people who need help aren't getting it. The Harvard report is the first of an ongoing study to assess mental health in a representative way, balanced by demographics and including both people who returned home and those who remained dispersed around the country.

Some scientists urge caution when comparing surveys from pre and post hurricane. They say the real value of the study maybe in the picture of mental health that emerges over time. And as Ron Kessler acknowledges, if people don't make progress in rebuilding their lives, suicide rates in his next report may not be so positive.

For NPR News, I'm Allan Coukell in Boston.

MONTAGNE: And if you want to get a look at the study's findings, go to

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