- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Last of three parts.

NEW ORLEANS

The debate raging over how to alleviate New Orleans’ burgeoning mental health crisis pits two very different solutions from two strong-willed politicians against each other: Mayor C. Ray Nagin wants more beds immediately to treat patients in hospitals, while Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration is pressing for more outpatient treatment.

The planned closing Sept. 1 of the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital - the city’s lone public hospital with a dedicated mental health ward - has created a flash point. And neither side is sparing words.

The metal bars and barbed-wire fences associated with older mental institutions like NOAH represent “not a system [but] a failure,” said Alan Levine, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals. “It’s a dinosaur, a relic of what mental health systems looked like 20 years ago.”

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But opponents of the closing say that the city already is desperately short of facilities for its neediest patients and that plans to shift the patients to a hospital in Mandeville, La., will unnecessarily isolate them from friends and family.

Even now, “police are sitting in hospitals waiting for patients to be offloaded. We are in a crisis now. We need relief,” said Dr. Jullette M. Saussy, director of the city’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS). “In the face of all this, they are closing NOAH.”

Earlier in this series, The Washington Times documented an explosion in mental health problems after Hurricane Katrina, which swept away many residents’ homes, social networks and loved ones when it battered New Orleans in September 2005.

A study by the World Health Organization, which surveyed residents in the same areas of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi both before and six months after Katrina, found that the ratio of residents with some degree of mental illness had risen from 15.8 percent to 31.2 percent.

At the same time, New Orleans saw its ability to deal with mental illness sharply diminished, with the number of inpatient beds for the mentally ill reduced from 400 at 10 hospitals four years ago to just 170 beds at seven hospitals today.

Now NOAH, the only remaining public hospital in the area with beds for mental patients (it has 35), is to close on Sept. 1 and be integrated with Southeast Louisiana Hospital, a mental institution 40 miles away on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain.

Mr. Levine said the $14 million that Louisiana will save with the move will be used to improve much-needed outpatient services.

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