Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in New Orleans after Katrina

Deborah Gray Health Guide
  • According to an article published this week in The New York Times, New Orleans is seeing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in near-epidemic proportions. Although that was to be expected, the scope (estimated to be triple the amount of depression that existed pre-Katrina) is taking some by surprise, mainly because they don't have a clear idea of how little the situation has improved in the last nine months.

    According to many New Orleans residents, they are being urged by friends who live elsewhere in the country to move on with their lives and “get over” Katrina. Many people living outside the area assume that since New Orleans held Mardi Gras, that everything must be essentially back to normal. If the most recent pictures of New Orleans you've seen were of Mardi Gras, you can be forgiven for thinking that. A city that survives on tourism has to clean up those areas that draw the tourists.

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    But this is the reality of what's happening in the rest of the Big Easy:

    ● Many parts of the city, especially the poorer ones, still have debris in the street, no power or water. Nine months later. Even some city services like garbage pickup that had restarted in some areas have all but ceased again.

    ● President Bush just signed the federal emergency relief bill for the region hit by Katrina on June 17th, nine months after Katrina and, ironically, after the start of this year's hurricane season. Maybe it's just my impatient personality and lack of knowledge about the inner workings of disaster relief, but it seems that “emergency” relief shouldn't take nine months.

    ● The city administration has still not announced any plan for rebuilding the city and in fact the planning committee that was set up to put the plan together seems to be defunct. Residents have no idea if their neighborhoods will be rebuilt or torn down, so that even if their house is still standing, they live under the threat of it being bulldozed and if their house needs to be rebuilt, they don't know if they should go ahead. They don't know if their neighborhoods will even be receiving city services in the future.

    ● For former New Orleans public housing residents, the prospects for moving back into housing just got bleaker, as HUD announced plans to demolish four out of ten of the largest public housing project in the city.

    ● Hurricane season has started, and the levee system is not fully functional.

    If I were a New Orleans resident I would be incredibly angry at the local, state and federal governments that had abandoned me. I would be profoundly depressed every time I walked down the street and still saw houses in ruins and piles of garbage. I would be saddened to hear that most of the country and the world didn't know about any of this because apparently the media feels that the public has “Katrina fatigue.” (Because, you know, hearing about the Iraq war instead makes us feel so much cheerier).

    The National Guard was called back into New Orleans recently due to outbreaks of violence. No one should be surprised. Depression coupled with anger over the lack of response from various levels of government, unemployment and a lack of police presence is a recipe for violence and crime.

  • As you can imagine, the mental health care system in New Orleans has been greatly affected by Katrina. Actually, it's near collapse. According to estimates by the state of Louisiana, more than half of the city's mental health workers relocated elsewhere after the storm. There are very few hospital beds available for psychiatric patients, especially since Charity Hospital, a large public hospital with room for 100 psychiatric patients, closed in March. Most of the crisis intervention falls to the already beleaguered police force.

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    And just to put this in an even more daunting perspective, we need to remember is that it was not just the city of New Orleans, and its residents, that was ripped apart by Katrina. The hurricane destroyed homes, towns and lives up and down the Gulf Coast. Portions of three states – Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were, and still are, devastated. So all those residents whose lives are still turned upside down are at enormous risk for depression. The children who survived Katrina are growing up in this devastation, often in conditions that we Americans would imagine only exist in Third World countries. How will this affect their mental and emotional health? What kind of scars are being imprinted on their psyches?

    Until the areas affected by Katrina return to normal in every way, the survivors will not be able to move on and begin the process of healing. The depression, PTSD and violence will continue and possibly escalate. Unless the officials who are busy elsewhere or paralyzed by indecision realize this, they are facing another disaster, one that will have consequences we can only guess at, and will take years or possibly decades to recover from.

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Published On: June 30, 2006