Mental Health Needs Continue in Gulf Coast Due to Hurricanes

Many residents of the Gulf Coast have rebuilt after the destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Others, though, continue to deal with hassles, postponements, and confusion from government agencies, contractors, city regulations and procedures.  Regardless of one's current state of rebuilding, the mental strain has taken its toll.

A new report finds that half a million Gulf Coast residents affected by the hurricanes may still need mental health assistance.  The report goes on to say that a lack of assistance will lead to long-term mental health problems for many of these people.  The findings are published in the August issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Traumatic events are marked by a sense of helplessness, threats to safety, and possibility of serious injury, according to Dr. Dale Archer, Jr., Psychiatrist and President of the Institute for Neuropsychiatry.  "For those residents who stayed here during the storm, and for everyone who returned and saw familiar landmarks destroyed, there's a sense of loss, anger, and sadness.  Some people had everything wiped out.  It would be unusual to go through devastation on that magnitude and not have mental health issues to work through, whether it's talking with a mentor, a member of the clergy or a therapist," he said.

The Gulf Coast survived the one-two punch of Katrina and then Rita, but the effects of the storm changed the day-to-day lives of nearly everyone in the area.  Doctors from the departments of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, Duke University Medical Center and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center portray a grim picture of the instability following the two storms:

  • § One survey found that 19 percent of police officers and 22 percent of firefighters reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while 26 percent of police and 27 percent of firefighters reported major depressive symptoms.
  • § The murder rate in New Orleans, which fell in 2005, has risen by 37.1 percent above pre-hurricane levels for the first half of 2006.
  • § Louisiana mental health counselors supported by federal government agencies made 158,260 referrals. This does not include people who sought support independently.
  • § Recent estimates show that only 100 doctors along the Gulf Coast area are participating in the Medicaid program, compared to 400 before the storms.
  • § Access to mental health care has been limited by the Stafford Act of 1974, which mandates that funding for mental health treatment can only be used for crisis management, not continuing treatment. The authors of the study are suggesting that Congress amend the Stafford Act.

The study's authors summarize by saying, "Rebuilding the Gulf Coast goes far beyond the need for repairing or building the physical infrastructure. For the rebuilding effort to be truly termed a success, the health care infrastructure, including health care workers and patients they serve, must be a primary focus of attention and investment."

Studies show responses to traumatic events vary from person to person, depending on their direct exposure to the traumatic event, a history of past trauma and psychological problems before the event.  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can cause feelings of fear, grief, and depression, as well as physical changes such as poor appetite and lack of sleep.  Differences in behavior can occur; for example, wanting to be alone and isolating from activities, friends and family.

"For people who experienced significant loss due to the hurricane, it is not uncommon to have post-traumatic stress disorder.  It is not a condition that is in someone's imagination. There are specific biological responses that occur to cause the recurring feeling of doom often associated with PTSD," explained Dr. Archer.

Research shows that the "fight or flight" response - the surge of adrenaline during a threatening situation - malfunctions in people with PTSD, leaving them unable to turn off the intense emotional and physical sensations.  The feeling of endangerment continues even when the actual threat is over.  People with PTSD may re-live the traumatic event through nightmares, frightening thoughts or flashbacks, especially when something reminds them of the trauma.

"As we near the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Rita, those who are still battling with depression, fear or anxiety due to changes that occurred from the storm should consider treatment to resolve the issues and move forward," said Dr. Archer. "There are effective treatments that will enable these individuals to mentally heal from the devastation."

About half of those with PTSD recover within three months without treatment.  When symptoms do not subside within several months, professional treatment is advised.