NEW ORLEANS — The city’s mental health system — once regarded as excellent — is in disarray, and officials say the situation is only going to get worse in the coming months as Hurricane Katrina victims start showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nearly all of the facilities that used to handle psychiatric care in the city are closed, leaving private hospitals unaccustomed to handling the volume of patients who need such treatment to pick up the slack.
“Tulane University and Toureau hospitals are the only emergency rooms open in Orleans, and they are telling us that people who are in protective custody for suicidal and other psychiatric maladies have to wait three to five days for a psychiatric bed,” said Sarah Hoffpauir, chairwoman of the Greater New Orleans Mental Health Resilience Task Force.
In Orleans Parish, all but one private psychiatric hospital — Community Care — are closed, she said, and there are no such facilities for children or adolescents in Orleans, St. Bernard’s or Plaquemines parishes.
The task force is working to get New Orleans Adolescent Hospital (NOAH) reopened.
“They have no damage, but their operating funds have been frozen by [the] Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals’ Office of Mental Health,” Mrs. Hoffpauir said. “We have asked them to give NOAH $2.5 million, and that would open 20 adult beds and 10 youth beds for indigent persons.”
The major problem is that money coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency cannot be used for operational expenses.
Officials have been tracking the slow progress in reopening medical facilities for months.
Dr. Candace Cutrone, the coroner for Jefferson Parish, said the situation is much more serious than people realize and has the potential to become worse in the coming months. Symptoms of depression and despair associated with post-traumatic stress disorder appear strongest eight to 10 months after the incident, psychiatric specialists with the task force said.
“My numbers for protective orders, when family members or friends ask for an evaluation, are fairly consistent with what they were before Katrina, but we have fewer beds and a decreased population, which represents an actual increase,” Dr. Cutrone said.
She said it is now typical for patients to spend two or three days living on stretchers in the halls of emergency rooms waiting for a bed.
“There can be upwards of 10 psych patients in an ER at a time, though the most I have personally seen in one visit is 8,” Dr. Cutrone said.
In addition, Jefferson Parish is servicing many patients from other areas — about 30 percent are from New Orleans and half are from areas as far away as Shreveport and Monroe.
“The majority of these patients are uninsured. Acute psychiatric units tell me that they run 50 percent to 60 percent uninsured,” Dr. Cutrone said.
Cecile Tebo, the crisis coordinator for the New Orleans Police Department, has seen the devastation up close.
Her home was under eight feet of water after the hurricane hit Aug. 29, and her neighborhood — once filled with dozens of children and friends — is down to three families.
“Prior to Katrina, we got a lot of calls for schizophrenics with drug addictions. Now, we are getting calls [from] people who have no prior history of mental health issues, and they increase every month as people are starting to lose hope,” Mrs. Tebo said.
She said she also suffered from depression and is still fighting with it.
“But I knew to get help and treatment. There are hundreds out there who have not,” Mrs. Tebo said.
She said that the suicide rate in New Orleans was nine times the national average between Aug. 29 and Dec. 31.