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Post-Katrina mental health issues continue in coastal counties

On a beautiful spring Saturday recently, Lori Spaschak spent the afternoon helping a Hancock County woman who wanted to kill herself. In coastal communities, post-Katrina distress is alive and well.

“We definitely are still seeing mental health issues,” the case manager with Long Term Recovery and Lutheran-Episcopal Disaster Services says. “This woman is still in a small FEMA trailer that’s in a trailer park that doesn’t allow children, so her son, who is bi-polar, lives with relatives who don’t want him. The woman had a stroke and lost her job. She’s waiting for a Katrina cottage and has gone through endless paperwork and waiting.”

Spaschak and other relief workers try to help residents with their immediate needs, such as obtaining grants, housing and furniture and referring them to mental health agencies. “We must have a good knowledge of the resources available,” she says. “People are stressed out and tired of waiting for their lives to have some normalcy.”

Still waiting for normalcy

Randy Kirksey, in-patient clinical services manager of Memorial Hospital’s Behavioral Health, says his organization is still seeing a lot of depression related to storm issues and financial and other problems associated with it.

“Right after Katrina, people were taking care of basic needs, but six months after the storm, the need for mental health services boomed, and it still is,” he says. “Many professionals are booked out three months in advance. We had some providers who left but others have moved in as individuals and organizations have sent people.”

He observes that some non-profit programs for mental health have ended but others are continuing, including a Red Cross program that helps with visits and medications, and grants from Chevron Refinery and the Mississippi Counselors Association to provide services to children. Additionally, Memorial Hospital received three grants to put therapists in school clinics.

Depression, substance abuse rising

Aletha Burge, director of community initiatives with the United Way of South Mississippi, says a Children’s Mental Health Coalition was formed to develop a comprehensive plan and programs for dealing with the mental health of the area’s children.

“Kids feel the stress at home and act it out at school,” she says. “It’s complicated and there are many reasons — mainly because people’s lives are changed.”

Kirksey lists a litany of issues affecting children and adults: the loss of homes, belongings, jobs and in some cases, schools; lack of permanent housing; cramped living quarters with little or no privacy; families split up. Heaped on top of these issues are the nightmares of red tape and dealing with bureaucracies.

He sees an increase in depression with all age groups and an increase in substance abuse.

“The experts had thought it would be winding down, but it’s continuing,” Burge says. “It’s huge and not getting better.”

At some point, it will level off, Kirksey says. “Everybody is doing a good job with what we have available to us, but we need more services,” he says. “We’re told it will take five to 10 years for the recovery and we’re just on our third year. Times will tell how these children fare.”

Bright spots, too

Although things aren’t perfect, Steve Barrilleaux sees some improvements. He is a psychologist and director of adult out-patient care in Harrison County for the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center, a non-profit community health center that is state regulated.

“Many people are getting back in their homes and there are more places available to live,” he says. “Out-of-state people are still coming to help rebuild and that’s encouraging. Without that help, our mental health would be much worse. These groups have made long-term commitments and that’s really boosted everyone’s spirits.”

Still, he notes that residents have made adjustments and adapted about as much as they can. Many can not regain the housing, lifestyle and emotional security they had. “Their lives are disrupted and there is ongoing stress,” he says. “The cost of living and rent is rising. That’s part of the new reality here.”

Barrilleaux says it’s difficult to get figures on suicide and abuse statistics related to hurricane stress. “That’s due to, shall we say, fancy statistical footwork,” he says. “I also don’t know of any study that supports that these things increase after a natural disaster. People have maintained their equilibrium and the resiliency that comes from living in a hurricane area. That’s the risk of living here.”

He believes things are getting better and community identities are slowly coming back.

But Spaschak and Kirksey see many residents who don’t have the resources to rebuild or locate permanent homes, despite available grants and programs.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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