Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Katrina Evacuees' Mental Health Eyed

The government is going to provide millions of dollars for counseling Katrina & Rita survivors, displaced citizens, and relief workers. After all, this should be kept quiet.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita combined with forecasted levee failures have obliterated your homes, your records, broken apart your families, scattered you across the country, and the United States of America has not provided you with relief, safety, security, and certainly no recovery. Other than that, how was your day?

Quotes from the March 17, 2006 Los Angeles Times article: "Emotional Toll of Katrina Is Still Rising" by Stephanie Simon:

"NEW ORLEANS — Dispersed across the nation, survivors of Hurricane Katrina are suffering such severe psychological distress that the federal government has launched the broadest — and probably the most costly — counseling program in the nation's history.

An estimated 500,000 people need some form of mental health service, which could include treatment for post-traumatic stress, substance abuse counseling, anti-anxiety medication, even art therapy for children too young to talk out their grief."

"In New Orleans, even those trained to offer solace break down easily and often: A hospital nurse, a school psychologist, a paramedic, a counselor all lose composure as they talk about Katrina.

"The truth is, we are not OK. We are so definitely not OK," said Burke Beyer, 31, who leads a federally funded team of counselors in New Orleans.

Experts knew from the start that Katrina would be traumatic. The storm killed more than 1,300 people, submerged 80% of New Orleans, flattened neighborhoods and forced friends and relatives apart. But the scope of the mental health crisis is only now emerging."

"A recent student survey there had uncovered overwhelming anxiety. Asked how they were feeling, kindergarteners drew frowning faces dripping tears. Second- and third-graders wrote down their fears:

"I'm worried that I will never see my family again."

"Katrina threw my house somewhere."

"My cat is gone."

"My friends are gone forever."

"What will we do? Where will we go?"

To the gentle rhythm of classical music, counselor Nikky Redpath led a kindergarten class through half an hour of art therapy. When she asked them to draw any emotion they wished, five of the 15 kids drew "scared," illustrated by the dark, angry swirls of a hurricane.

At the next session, Redpath asked fourth-graders to draw something they had lost.

They drew teddy bears, pets and, above all, houses: Perfect squares with triangular roofs and chimneys puffing smoke and flowers by the front door.

"I had a big old window right here," one girl said, reaching for a crayon.

"Have you seen your house? How is it?" another counselor asked a boy.

Still sketching, he answered: "It's bad."

When they gathered in a circle to share their drawings, several students could not talk. They held up their pictures in silence."

Now the Federal government is going to provide millions of dollars for counseling to the survivors of Hurricanes Katrina & Rita, the levee failures, and the victims of this country's systematic abandonment of relief. I am a disaster mental health worker.

The horror of Katrina and Rita only grows. The bureaucratic "barriers" from achieving relief remain nothing short of despicable. FEMA recently began an eviction process that will swell to over 150,000 displaced residents from hotel rooms they were "allowed" to stay-in. It took court interventions to extend the planned stay. 1,800 homes were offered to survivors, but every effort was made to block access to them.

I'm a psychologist and volunteer in disaster mental health relief. In September of 2005, I worked with over 20,000 survivors of Katrina in a town 60-miles north of New Orleans. While there, I drove through Hurricane Rita to reach a colleague in Greenville, Mississippi. He wanted to convert a 225,000 square foot facility into residences for the survivors, and my help in developing a community-based recovery program. However, he's never been able to get a relief contract, although billions of dollars are available.

400,000 American citizens have no homes to return to; mud and oil saturate the remnants of all they once owned. They have no records, tax documents, bank statements, clothes, pictures, appliances, tools, etc. What's more, tens of thousands of survivors have roamed the northeastern area above New Orleans and southeastern region of Mississippi without housing since the disaster struck nearly one year ago. 60,000 thousand trailers sit without occupancy, as no one takes lead, eliminates barriers, and moves people into them. Hurricane season is here. What are hundreds of thousands of completely displaced people supposed to do when their country abandons them?

In 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed while 38 New York City residents watched and did nothing to save her. Social psychologists have used this horrible scenario as a metaphor for passive crowd behavior, i.e., the amazing situation where people won't act when something awful is happening to fellow human beings nearby.

American citizens on America's soil are in desperate need, and the response is media/political avoidance and denial. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the man-made levee failures may become American society's version of Kitty Genovese. It is nothing short of bold-faced immorality.

Thousands of Americans volunteered and/or worked in NOLA and the gulf coast. While their voices have called out to America in innumberable blogs and Op-Ed articles, they are all but ignored by politicians, the media, the "stakeholders," the rich, and the government. A small sample of the matrix of available portals are noted here. We should not tolerate Katrina and Rita becoming America's holocaust by proxy.