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Hurricane Katrina Victims' Mental Health Worsens

November 1, 2007 from Morning Edition

STEVE INSKEEP, host: A new report on the mental health of Hurricane Katrina survivors contains some surprising information. The study's author says what's going on in the Gulf Coast is contrary to the patterns usually seen after major disasters. And we have more this morning from NPR's Alix Spiegel.

ALIX SPIEGEL: Ron Kessler of Harvard Medical School started collecting data about the mental health of Katrina victims about five months after the storm hit the Gulf, and the first batch of information he collected and published was pretty much what he expected. The research showed PTSD and other mental disorders were roughly double what they were in the general population, which was high but not totally out of the ordinary. What's striking, he says, about this new batch of data is that it doesn't conform to the usual pattern. For example, Kessler says, rates of PTSD almost always decline in the two years after a major traumatic event.

Dr. RON KESSLER (Harvard Medical School): The majority of people in that one year and certainly the two year windows time recover, and in very bad situations you fail to find that, that there is not as much recovery or in some extreme cases no evidence of recovery. But we virtually never find an increase, and were are finding a doubling in the prevalence of PTSD in most of the area affected by Hurricane Katrina. That's really quite striking.

SPIEGEL: And it's not just PTSD that's on the rise in many of the areas affected by Katrina. Kessler says the research shows there's been a huge increase in the prevalence of other mental health issues, including what's called suicidal ideation.

Dr. KESSLER: It's now up to eight percent. So that's a pretty substantial number of people; eight percent of the population is thinking about killing themselves.

SPIEGEL: And, Kessler says, there's another way that the research they've collected points to something unusual.

Dr. KESSLER: In typical disaster situations, you find that disadvantaged people, people who are disadvantaged to begin with, are affected most - poor people, the elderly. That wasn't the case here. It seemed to be a kind of an equal opportunity disaster: rich and poor, young and old, male and female, black and white.

SPIEGEL: Mental health professionals on the ground in New Orleans seem to agree with Kessler on this point.

Ms. CECIL TEBO (Social Worker): Every end of the spectrum.

SPIEGEL: That's Cecile Tebo, a licensed clinical social worker who worked for the New Orleans Police Department. Two days ago, Tebo says, she got a suicide call from a posh neighborhood in New Orleans. She says she walked into the house carrying a pair of restraints but was immediately told by the man who had called that she didn't need them.

Ms. TEBO: He goes, oh, I'm not going to need those. I don't need those. I'm a mental health professional. I work in the field. I understand this stuff. And he said he had been having thoughts of killing himself; but worse, he was having serious thoughts of killing the air conditioner man. So I'm like, oh yeah, like everybody else. And he said, no, I'm very serious. He really - he was planning on the next time the air-conditioning man came to his house, he was going to kill him.

SPIEGEL: Kessler theorizes that part of the reason people in New Orleans and other areas of the Gulf Coast are struggling like this is because of the slow pace of recovery. And he points out a disturbing reality about the long term effects of persistent PTSD.

Dr. KESSLER: People who persist in having PTSD for two years or longer very often become chronic cases.

SPIEGEL: Which means that mental health problems might linger in the Gulf region for years to come.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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