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Estimated 500,000 Need Mental Help a Year After Katrina

But experts say there's a dire shortage of services in the Gulf Coast region

TUESDAY, Aug. 1, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Half a million U.S. residents in areas devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may still need mental health assistance, but they're unlikely to get it because of a dire shortage of mental health professionals in the Gulf Coast region.

That's the finding of new research that predicts the lack of assistance will lead to long-term mental health problems for many of these people.

Hurricane Katrina was the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history, displacing some 2.5 million residents and killing at least 1,800, according to official reports.

And its mental health effects have since become staggering, contend the authors of a commentary in the Aug. 2 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Summing up what has happened since the hurricanes destroyed large parts of four Gulf Coast states last August, doctors from the departments of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, Duke University Medical Center and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center paint a fairly grim picture of the instability that has followed:

  • One survey found that 68 percent of female caregivers had a mental health disability because of symptoms of depression, anxiety or other psychiatric disorders.
  • Another survey found that 19 percent of police officers and 22 percent of firefighters reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while 26 percent of police and 27 percent of firefighters reported major depressive symptoms.
  • A crisis-call center in Mississippi handling inquiries mostly from people dealing with depression and anxiety reported a 61 percent increase in volume between March 1 and May 31, 2006, compared with the period just after the hurricanes, Oct 31 and Dec. 31, 2005.
  • The deputy coroner of New Orleans recorded almost a threefold increase in suicide rates, from nine per 100,000 to 26 per 100,000 in the four months after Katrina hit. And the murder rate in New Orleans, which fell in 2005, has risen by 37.1 percent above pre-hurricane levels for the first half of 2006.
  • In Louisiana, mental health counselors supported by federal government agencies made 158,260 referrals. This doesn't include people who sought support independently.
  • Recent estimates suggest that only 140 of 617 primary-care physicians have returned to practice in New Orleans. Only 100 doctors along the Gulf Coast area are participating in the Medicaid program, compared to 400 before Katrina hit.
  • And estimates also suggest that only 22 of 196 psychiatrists continue to practice in New Orleans, while the number of psychiatric hospital beds has been sharply reduced: as of June 14, the authors said, there were only two psychiatric beds within a 25-mile radius of New Orleans.

Access to mental health care has also been limited by the Stafford Act of 1974, which mandates that funding for mental health treatment only be used for crisis management, not continuing treatment.

With the annual cost of treating one mentally ill person in Louisiana averaging $2,900, the authors suggested that Congress amend the Stafford Act.

"Rebuilding the Gulf Coast goes far beyond the need for repairing or building the physical infrastructure," the commentary authors wrote. "For the rebuilding effort to be truly termed a success, the health-care infrastructure, including health-care workers and the patients they serve, must be a primary focus of attention and investment."

More information

For more on mental health awareness and the hurricane aftermath, visit the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration .

SOURCE: JAMA, news release, Aug. 2, 2006
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