Katrina's Emotional Damage Lingers

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- "I've been thinking the last couple days the best thing to do is die."

The man, speaking on a dull monotone, was slumped in a chair inside the steamy convention center here, waiting to see a doctor. He didn't want to come to the makeshift hospital, but a friend insisted.

"I'd hardly had a drink in years," said the man. "Right after the hurricane hit, I just started drinking. If I stop drinking, the pain becomes so great it's unbearable."

In these months after Hurricane Katrina, it is not hard to find people like David, a quirky, debonair, fragile artiste who asked that his last name not be published. They can be seen walking on deserted streets with glazed eyes. In grocery stores and offices, they inexplicably break into tears. Police officers confess to counselors that they are fighting more with spouses and yelling at their kids. Many turn up at local hospitals searching for a neat explanation for pain the likes of which they have never felt before.

Every disaster has its second wave, the emotional scars that linger after the initial blow. But the impact from Katrina -- which displaced nearly 2 million people, eradicated entire neighborhoods, separated families and reopened racial wounds -- is far beyond what mental health experts in this country have ever confronted, they say.

In the extreme cases -- and there have been many -- they have hanged themselves, overdosed and put guns to their heads. The number of suicides in neighboring Jefferson Parish is more than double what it was in the fall of 2004. In the first days of the crisis, coroner Robert Treuting saw five suicides in three days. In the two months since, there have been 11, compared with five a year ago. Two New Orleans police officers have taken their lives, and at least one more has attempted suicide.

"It's like living in the Twilight Zone," said Candace Cutrone, who as assistant coroner for mental health in Orleans Parish has the overwhelming task of evaluating psychiatric cases for local hospitals. "The whole world changed overnight."

Orleans Parish coroner Frank Minyard said he does not have statistics for the city, because many deaths -- including nine by gunshot -- remain a mystery. He knows of at least one woman who killed herself recently. New Orleans emergency personnel have responded to at least six suicides and nearly two dozen suicide attempts since Katrina. The tightly knit community of Academy of the Sacred Heart, the Rosary, is coping with two suicides, headmaster Timothy M. Burns said. Shortly before Thanksgiving, a woman with young children took her life. Last week, the father of a Sacred Heart student was buried.

And with so few medical services available in the region and the slow pace of rebuilding, experts expect the psychological toll to grow far worse.

"I think the whole city's grieving," said Alvin M. Rouchell, chairman of the psychiatry department at the Oschner Clinic Foundation in neighboring Jefferson Parish. "I've seen a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder. People who had emotional disorders before the hurricane have a worsening of conditions, and some people for the first time are having panic attacks, depression, PTSD."

Calls to a national suicide-prevention hotline skyrocketed from the typical 100 to 150 a day to more than 900 in the immediate aftermath of Katrina before leveling off to about 210 a day now, said Charles G. Curie, administrator of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In a clinical survey of Orleans and Jefferson parishes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 45 percent of the residents were experiencing "significant distress or dysfunction" and 25 percent had an even "higher degree of dysfunction," said Dori Reissman of the CDC. Nearly half of those interviewed reported feeling isolated, and a quarter believe at least one family member needs counseling. On Wednesday, the Bush administration plans to distribute public service announcements to 11,000 media outlets advertising a confidential toll-free number for individuals or family members who may have been psychologically impacted by the storm and its aftermath.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company