Hurricane Katrina Exacts Another Toll: Enduring Depression

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

NEW ORLEANS -- A gravel-voiced fire department captain, Michael Gowland says he had never been a big crier.

"I'm not a Neanderthal," he said last week, "but I wasn't much for tears."

Now, sometimes, he cries two or three hours at a stretch. Other times, his temper has exploded, prompting him one day to pick up a crescent wrench and chase an auto mechanic around a garage. Even more perplexing to him, the once devout Roman Catholic now wonders "if there's anything out there."

"If anyone had told me before that depression could bring me this low, I'd have said they were a phony," Gowland, 46, married and a father of three, said during a break from fixing his flooded home. "Everything bothers me."

More than two years after the storm, it is not Hurricane Katrina itself but the persistent frustrations of the delayed recovery that are exacting a high psychological toll on people who never before had such troubles, psychiatrists and a major study say. A burst of adrenaline and hope propelled many here through the first months but, with so many neighborhoods still semi-deserted, inspiration has ended.

Calls to a mental health hotline jumped after the storm and have remained high, organizers said. Psychiatrists report being overbooked, at least partly because demand has spiked. And the most thorough survey of the Gulf Coast's mental health recently showed that while signs of depression and other ills doubled after the hurricane, two years later, those levels have not subsided, they have risen.

"It's really stunning in juxtaposition to what these kinds of surveys have shown after other disasters, or after people have been raped or mugged," said Ronald C. Kessler, a professor of health-care policy at Harvard Medical School, who led the study. Typically, "people have a lot of trouble the first night and the first month afterward. Then you see a lot of improvement."

But, in New Orleans, the percentage of people reporting signs of severe mental illness, suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress disorder increased between March 2006 and the summer of 2007, the survey showed.

"A lot of people had this expectation in New Orleans that, 'Dammit, by next Mardis Gras, we're going to be back' . . . and then they weren't," Kessler said. "Then they said, 'By next year, we'll be back,' and they weren't. We're in this stage of where there are a lot of people just kind of giving up."

Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose wrote about his own depression in a widely discussed newspaper article published in October and then in his recent book, "1 Dead in Attic." The article struck a chord.

"I probably amassed 3,000 e-mails from people who felt like me," Rose said. "Now they come up to me in the grocery store and tell me what meds they're on. I say, 'Congratulations.' "

Depression is often discussed in terms of chemical causes, but interviews with psychiatrists and patients here ascribed its appearance in post-Katrina New Orleans to the stresses of rebuilding.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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