Mental Health, News

Post Hurricane Katrina mental health issues still abound among blacks affected by the storm

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by Eliqua Brooks

Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Louisiana Weekly

( — Many New Orleans residents suffer from depression 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, a category five storm that killed 1,245 people with 175 mile an hour winds on August 29, 2005.

It continues to play a huge role in the wellness of the city. Experts say mental health post-Katrina is often ignored because it lingers under the surface of more visible problems facing the city’s residents. The overall well-being of the city’s residents is often tied to their emotional state. Recovery, post Katrina, is not just about blighted buildings but tortured minds.

“Could you imagine somebody taking something away from you and not knowing when you will get it back, can you imagine how distressed one might get?” said Brian Turner, MD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Xavier University in New Orleans.

New Orleans resident pleas for help during Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans resident plea for help during Hurricane Katrina. The category five storm caused depression among the city’s black residents.

Turner’s research and practice examines the notion of etiology – what is the root of the disorder, and how Katrina played a huge role in the well-being of the community.

Mental health is more than just mental illness, experts say. Mental health is characterized by individuals holding a positive view of themselves, developing constructive relations with others and being engaged dynamically with others in the environment they share. Turner added that mental health is what motivates an individual to achieve the maximum degree of self-fulfillment.

Hurricane Katrina was predominantly stressful for lower-income and African-American residents who were left homeless and isolated from their social and community networks, local experts say.

Many were photographed pleading for help from the rooftops of their homes after Katrina drenched the area with heavy rains. They were the lucky ones; countless bloated bodies were photographed floating in the Mississippi River.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 50 percent of New Orleans residents showed signs of a possible need for mental-health treatment post-Katrina, with depression being a dominant symptom. Research conducted in a 2010 National Institutes of Health study also found that African-American residents in the city exhibited post-traumatic stress disorder related to Hurricane-Katrina loss and stress. The NIH report called for more long-term mental health services in the city, particularly for lower-income residents, who the study stated were least likely to seek help.

From Oct. 19-23, universities across the city from Xavier to Tulane coordinated Wellness Week activities, with the inclusion of mental health and well-being as a key component in events. “They seek to make us more conscious of the issues that we ignore, deny or pretend that don’t even exist,” Turner said.

Black people, in particular, stigmatize seeking mental health care, Turner found. They seek “therapy” through substance abuse to escape the realities of living in a society that has dealt harshly with people of color. According to post-Katrina data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal agency that tracks well-being nationwide, roughly 15.2 percent of residents in the New Orleans metropolitan area reported engaging in illicit drug use, of which two-thirds of those sampled were African-American. The national average for illicit drug use is 14.7 percent and for the state of Louisiana is 13.2 percent. The city also averaged higher than the state of Louisiana and the country for binge drinking and cigarette use, according to SAMHSA data for 2010.

“People find ways to ignore the problem and seek different alternatives to create a different astrosphere and make matters worse,” said Turner. “[Drug use] are symbols of ways that are therapeutic in the outcome but not therapeutic in the technique of how people try to deal with the everyday stuff that is happening in the world.”

Likewise, residents do not always recognize they are living in a prolonged state of post-Katrina depression. There are two sides of depression, passive and active, Turner explained. A person who is “passive” experiences “anhedonia.” They are unable to feel pleasure from activities they once enjoyed. They stay away from gatherings and interaction. People, who are “active,” inflict self-harm like self cutting, and using drugs and alcohol as a way of self-medicating, Turner said.

Sierra Thomas, a New Orleans resident, said she lost her son during Katrina. “After Katrina, and still to this day I blame myself,” Thomas said. “No one understands how I feel nor am I surrounded by people who are willing to talk about these issues. My family up and left and now I only have myself. It’s a lonely feeling,” Thomas added.

Organizations in the city are now working to deal with the often overlooked and undiagnosed psychological issues facing residents. Beacon Behavioral Health is one of many clinics that emphasize mental well-being in its outreach and services. “We try to distinguish what kind of help the person needs to see if they are a good fit for the program,” said Rebecca Nguyen, a staffer at Beacon. “We have support groups, and we find a way for them to get help, we organize a way to pick up the patient and fulfill their needs,” Nguyen said.

Other organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Health’s Hope and Healing support group meets every Monday at the Tulane Community Health Center from 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. The JenCare Neighborhood Medical Center provides mental health services to the community through the Brinton Family Health and Healing Center. The services are a free, confidential peer-to-peer support group for residents seeking mental health expertise. Angie Kirkland, a community health worker with JenCare, put both of the support groups together because of the need in the community. Kirkland said, “These classes help people express themselves in ways to not act out their feelings, but to analyze and approach their feelings.”


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