It is nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina hit, and yet the demand for mental health services for people who have been struggling with recovery from the hurricane has not diminished.
“I think everyone in the mental health field is almost at the point of being overwhelmed on the Coast right now because a lot of people need counseling,” says Dr. William Gasparrini, a clinical psychologist at the Applied Psychology Center in Biloxi. “The Applied Psychology Center’s business was devastated the first few months after Katrina because no one could come in. Now we are busier than we could possibly be.”
The Red Cross through a program called Access to Care has played a major role in helping people who need counseling services.
“The Applied Psychology Center and other mental health providers are able to accept reimbursement from Red Cross,” Gasparrini says. “Everyone on the Coast who had damage from Hurricane Katrina but doesn’t have mental healthcare coverage and can’t afford to pay can apply to Red Cross for care and Red Cross pays. They allow $1,000 to $2,000 per client, which is usually all anyone needs to get counseling for recovering.”
Back to normal and not so normal
Gasparrini says it appears a high percentage of local people are still experiencing emotional problems related to the hurricane. For some people, life is back to normal — they are back in their homes and jobs. But significant numbers of people are still in FEMA trailers and a lot of them are very frustrated by that fact.
“Some people haven’t finished repairs, and there is a lot of frustration about finding contractors and enough money to pay for repairs,” Gasparrini said. “They find themselves distracted at work, feeling nervous and irritable. So there are still a lot of emotional reactions that haven’t been completely resolved two years after the storm.”
People are just worn out, says Jeff Bennett, director of the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center. People feel depressed, and are tired of hassles dealing with insurance companies, government agencies and crooked contractors.
“Many people who were middle-income working folks had not had to receive services from the government before,” Bennett says. “When you get down to people living at poverty level, they have had to deal with these aggravations all their lives, and are used to it. It was a new experience for working folks who had made their way most of their lives without any government assistance. Some of the assistance is slow to come. We still have working people living in FEMA trailers or with family members, which is a difficult and daunting task at times.”
Frustrated, worn out and sad
It is common for people to feel frustrated, worn out and sad. While it might not be diagnosed as clinical depression, it is a condition that could use some counseling intervention.
Approximately 60% of residents receiving services at the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center evacuated for the storm. Many did not return because of the lack of moderate and low-income housing on the Coast. But that decline has been offset by new patients. Bennett says there are particularly a lot of problems with people self-medicating depression with alcohol or street drugs.
Living in a FEMA trailer park could be a recipe for depression. Bennett says unlike most neighborhoods people live in where they have a lot in common with neighbors, the FEMA trailer park residents are from diverse races, cultures and economic backgrounds.
“There are lots of boundary problems that come with that,” Bennett says. “There are also domestic issues. There is a significant increase in domestic violence. Some accompanies substance abuse.”
Even in areas not as badly damaged by the storm, there are issues. For example, Picayune saw a large increase in population from Louisiana residents who moved there after losing their homes.
Most people expected things to be better by now, close to the two-year anniversary of the storm.
‘Is it never going to end?’
“But I don’t think things are that much better,” Bennett says. “Right after the storm, there was the honeymoon phase. But when it lingers on, it becomes worse. The term I use sometimes is malignant malaise. Is it never going to end? I know a lot of people still struggling to get back in their home. Personally, I’m not back in my home. I encounter people like this every day. Many are not seeking mental health services, but they are just worn to a nub. I think the recovery is going to take us quite some time both from the infrastructure standpoint and the emotional standpoint. People from outside our area think this should be all behind us now — until they come down here. If you go down our beach, there hasn’t been much change here. The recovery is not complete, far from it.”
Bennett’s advice to businesses is to be patient with staff as they work toward personal recovery. If possible, give employees flexibility to get off work when needed to meet with contractors or for other storm related needs.
“Try to be as flexible as you can be with employees, and recognize they will have problems,” he said. “Encourage people to talk to friends. You don’t have to talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist to get relief from stress. Share with friends and neighbors.”
Crisis call centers are seeing an increase in the number of calls from people considering suicide, said Kris Jones, director of disaster preparedness and response, Mississippi Department of Mental Health (DMH). She said there is likely a correlation between the stress resulting from the storm and the suicide statistics.
DMH has received a federal grant of $400,000 per year for three years to develop and implement a suicide-prevention and early intervention activities program for youth directly impacted by Hurricane Katrina in the coastal counties of George, Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Pearl River, and Stone counties. Jones says the project provides for training of individuals in middle and high schools, as well as in community colleges and universities, in effective practices and programs for recognizing youth at-risk for suicide and making appropriate referrals for mental health and other interventions that may be needed.
Jones says businesses may want to consider providing employee assistance programs with mental health providers. Services based on a sliding scale fee are available through community mental centers for individual and group therapy.
“I would encourage businesses, if they haven’t already done it, to set up employee assistance programs,” Jones says. “They can do that in partnership with community mental health centers. That would be a way for their employees to access mental health services. Usually businesses negotiate a contract with the community mental health center.”
Edwin C. LeGrand III, executive director of DMH, says it is important to dispel the stigma associated with mental illness.
“We want to encourage mental health-friendly workplaces,” LeGrand says. “Although public attitudes toward people with other disabilities have changed dramatically over the past two decades, people with mental health problems are often the subjects of scorn, ridicule and fear. Common misconceptions and stereotypes about mental health problems still create barriers to employment and, most sadly, treatment. The stigma attached to mental illness is why many people choose not to seek treatment. There are more treatments, services and community support systems than ever before, and more are in the works.
“A common myth is that a person with a mental illness can not be a productive employee. This is not true. Many political leaders, artists, musicians and professionals have achieved greatness despite their mental illness. People with mental illnesses can lead active, productive lives.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.