Friday, August 27, 2010

Mental health system in New Orleans post-Katrina still healing

From WWL-TV:

NEW ORLEANS -- The mental health delivery system was severely wounded after Hurricane Katrina, and the people on the front lines say there are still big problems five years later.

The picture the experts paint of mental health needs in the region since Hurricane Katrina is of one that needs acute treatment.

"If basic needs aren't met -- food, clothing and housing -- then those are the things that we all as humans, need first," said Rebecca Thees of the Volunteers of America Disaster Related Services.

The VOA learned that rebuilding a safe and secure home after the storm was directly related to mental health recovery. And since the storm, they have seen a surge in the homeless on the Northshore, a group they call the hidden homeless.

People on the front lines of treatment say still, there aren't enough in-patient beds.

"There were over 380 mental health folks that went through the emergency room at University (Hospital) last month. I mean, that's just outrageous. We're not doing a good job at being our brother's keeper," said Licensed Clinical Social Worker Cecile Tebo who is the Commander of the NOPD Crisis Unit.

"I think all the service providers are overwhelmed at this point in time with the amount of individuals that are coming in seeking services," said Victor Sims, a licensed clinical social worker at the West Jefferson Behavioral Medicine Center.

But there is something that still remains a huge problem, and that is that people who have a mental illness, meaning their brains are sick and the chemicals in the brain aren't working right, end up not going to a hospital but rather going to a jail.

"One of the things that we have been seeing most recently is an unprecedented number of people with chronic mental illness being incarcerated. Orleans Parish Prison hosts the largest number of mental health beds in our region. That's 60 beds just for the chronically mentally ill. That's not including the other probably 60, 70 percent with minor mental illness; you know, drug addiction, depression, anxiety," added Tebo.

The sheriff said too often people don't take their medications, which leads to criminal behavior, then jail, taking up resources and manpower.

"This is a jail. It's not a hospital," said Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman. "And yes, we do have psychiatrists. We do have social workers, but we're a jail, so you're talking about a secure facility where people cannot access it. Where you can't have the intervention that you want to have, so therefore the recovery time is lengthened and the ability to provide additional resources is not there."

And the experts say there are a lot of people who don't realize they need help and self medicate with drugs and alcohol to try to calm their anxieties.

"I believe my numbers right now are over 36 percent of the calls that I receive through the 911 system involve a person who's intoxicated or heavily on drugs. I'm seeing a real surge with teenage use with marijuana," said Tebo.

The police crisis unit has also seen a rise in heroin, cocaine and crack use.