- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Second of three parts.

NEW ORLEANS

A mental health crisis that has swamped this city’s care facilities as surely as Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters washed over the Lower 9th Ward is about to become even worse, care providers say.

New Orleans already is struggling with fewer than half of the inpatient beds for the mentally ill that it had before the 2005 hurricane - even as suicide rates and the number of people with mental health problems have doubled.

That shortage is about to become even more acute with the scheduled closing Sept. 1 of the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital (NOAH), the city’s only public hospital still providing inpatient services for the mentally ill.

The closure, designed to trim $14 million from the state’s 2010 budget, will leave New Orleans with 133 beds for mental health inpatient care and will make the city jail - with 60 of those beds - the city’s largest psychiatric ward.

Click here to visit the interactive Web site accompanying this series of articles about New Orleans’ struggles with mental illness post-Katrina.

Before Katrina, “We had a functional system, not a Rolls-Royce, but we managed to treat patients,” said Dr. Kevin U. Stephens, director of health for the city of New Orleans.

TWT RELATED STORY:
Mentally ill struggle in post-Katrina New Orleans

State funding for mental health services has risen steadily since the storm, from $37.4 million in 2006 to $74.4 million this year. Even so, Dr. Stephens said, “We have no real significant inpatient capability, and outpatient treatment is limited.”

That shortage of facilities is felt most strongly by residents like Byron Turner, who four years after Katrina still is haunted by visions that eventually drove him to seek professional help.

“Life was real good for me before Katrina,” he said. “I had no mental health issues ever in my life. I was never homeless. I had jobs. I had two automobiles before the storm.”

Today, he is homeless and taking medication to reduce his bouts of anger. Sometimes he’s angry about his situation, sometimes he just gets frustrated with himself. Sometimes, he’s still angry over the hurricane.

“I still see the bodies. I still see the dead children. I still see the elderly people floatin’ in the water. I still see the water,” Mr. Turner said.

Overwhelmed public health agencies in New Orleans can only guess how many of the city’s residents are, like Mr. Turner, still struggling to cope with the mental and emotional consequences of a maelstrom that swept away whole neighborhoods and stole away friends, relatives, homes and social networks - the glue that holds people’s psyches together.

Story Continues →