Aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Louisiana

After storms, mental health crisis compounded by COVID looms in Louisiana

GALLIANO, LA – When Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana’s coast, Carisa Benson sought refuge in a friend’s spare room, crowding onto a single air mattress with her family of four. 

Dealing with the aftermath of Ida is only the latest stressor for Benson, who has a high-risk pregnancy. She was bedridden with COVID during their evacuation, hospitalized for dehydration, and spent six weeks without prenatal care because of her illness and hurricane-related closures. Now, she is beginning to have contractions. The nearest working hospital is 30 miles away.

 “It is the worst feeling that I could ever experience. It’s the lowest of low. Everything got disrupted. I am going through quite a lot of stress,” said Benson, as the generator abruptly stopped and the room went dark.

While she said she is grateful for the friend who offered her family a small room, it is a struggle. Their only power comes from a small generator – utilities have yet to be restored here – and the heat has been excessive. At nine months pregnant, Benson knows her time to find a space of her own is running out.

READ MORE: Louisiana’s parishes feel ‘forgotten’ in the dark weeks after Hurricane Ida

 “There’s no way we can bring a baby here.” Benson told the PBS NewsHour. “The air mattress literally takes up the entire space from wall to wall. The reality is a baby will be here soon. It’s unsafe. We really don’t have much time to figure this out.”

When Ida hit, it wasn’t just infrastructure that took a hit. Experts say storm survivors’ physical and mental health will continue to be affected long after the clouds have parted, compounded by the region’s  high rates of COVID and hospitalizations that have pushed hospitals past their limits.

“People are feeling a lot of fatigue. I think we are approaching a bit of a crisis if we don’t step out ahead of this,” said Dr. Denese Shervington, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tulane University’s School of Medicine.

Ida hit on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, reopening painful memories for many residents. “All of that put people right back to Katrina. The stress is pretty heavy. It’s an old wound that has not healed and added new trauma to those unhealed parts of our psyche,” said Shervington, who is also the founder and CEO of the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, which has extensively studied the psychological impacts of Katrina and provides community outreach to residents.

Health officials say post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are debilitating issues that emerge following a storm, especially for people who experience prolonged stressors related to being displaced from their home or trying to get repairs done on their home.

“Whether disaster survivors in southeast Louisiana develop a mental health disorder or not, many are being pushed to the edge of resilience fatigue, grasping to find the strength to get back up after being knocked down one too many times,” Shervington said.

A post-Katrina mental health survey from the Hurricane Katrina Community Advisory Group showed a doubling in mild-to-moderate mental illness from 9.7 percent before Katrina to almost 20 percent following the hurricane. In addition, psychiatric helpline calls increased by 61 percent, and the city’s homicide rate rose 37 percent in the months following the 2005 hurricane.

Charles Figley, director of Tulane University’s Traumatology Institute, said it usually takes about 10 years for a community to heal from a natural disaster. Recent statistics after Katrina are harder to come by, Figley and  Shervington said, because even the research of mental health isn’t always treated as a priority.

The city of New Orleans acknowledged this in its own report on the state of mental health in the city in 2012, saying  while some organizations have collected important data on mental health, it is not collected uniformly across the city’s many providers of behavioral health services. Beyond coordination issues and a lack of resources, a “vacuum in the available data to estimate the number of people in need of treatment and severely limits the ability to engage in community-wide behavioral health planning.” it wrote.

“Not knowing the extent of the problem helps no one,” Figley said. “There are many things we should worry about and this is one of them.”

MORE: Louisiana’s parishes feel ‘forgotten’ in the dark weeks after Hurricane Ida

In the years since that report, New Orleans Public Schools has launched an annual behavioral health survey that measures the mental health of students across the system, and the ability of schools to respond to traumatic events. That data is used to improve resources and connections to outside mental health services, according to the New Orleans Behavioral Health Council’s 2019-2020 report. The report also pointed to city efforts to improve the relationship between patients and health care systems by helping patients better understand the resources available to them, as well as efforts to more closely monitor individuals with behavioral health issues who came into contact with the criminal justice system and consider whether additional action should be taken to address those health needs.

After Ida, the city responded by “putting boots on the ground and going into communities we felt were the most vulnerable in order to attend to the most immediate needs,” a city spokesperson said.

While this crisis affects everyone, Shervington said,   mental health issues will disproportionately impact communities of color, families with low wealth, and persons living in poverty who lack accessibility to mental health services.  A 2012 Princeton study of low-income mothers in the New Orleans area, for instance, found that about 33 percent of its participants had Katrina-related PTSD four years later, and 30 percent reported psychological distress. Most still weren’t back to pre-hurricane levels seven years later.

 And “these series of rolling shocks, worsened by the increasing ferocity of climate change which is bringing extreme weather events demand that our public mental health systems adapt and be prepared to deal with the mental health fallout,” Shervington said. 

Aside from mental health services offered by the city, organizations like Shervington and Figley’s have tried to fill in the gaps. The Institute of Women and Ethnic studies has several programs focused on emotional wellness available to the community, particularly to youth.  Through the Wellness Evaluation-Community Action Network (WE_CAN!), the institute has commissioned research to improve understanding of how mental health issues like PTSD present themselves in children, and educate local teachers and providers in the Metropolitan Human Services District with training on how to spot and treat the condition. 

READ MORE: ‘Purest form of hell’: Louisianans are living in tents and cars after losing homes to storms

Experts say healing after Ida will be tougher since Covid has robbed people of the opportunity to gather in community. The region that eats, dances, or parades its problems away is missing some of the supports that are helpful to us to regain a sense of well-being. 

In Galliano, Benson and her family don’t have many options. Finances are tight, having lost their jobs during COVID  and incurring more unplanned expenses during the evacuation. She said it’s  tough to keep a happy face for her 1-year old son while not having answers for her 4-year old daughter. 

“We were going from hotel to hotel. We were sleeping in the car; then we were sleeping in our damaged house with the roof leaking and knowing it could cave in any second..She’s been asking, when are we going to go home? ” Benson said. pausing to hold back tears. “I eventually told her we don’t have a home anymore, but she wants to know where we are going to live. I don’t have an answer for her. I don’t know myself.”

If you are experiencing distress or struggling with mental health, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357). The City of New Orleans also operates a 24-hour crisis line at (504) 826-2675.

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