Listen to this week's show (September 7, 2005):
In the Wake of the Storm: A Special Report is a story of the hurricane that is as yet untold. When one million people evacuated the Gulf Coast, they left behind the region's most vulnerable residents, poor people, and people with multiple physical and mental disabilities. They are finally escaping . . . but to what? And of the one million people who fled, experts say we can also expect to see prolonged instances of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.
Mental health experts have been warning for years of the consequences that a disaster of the scope of Katrina would pose on the nation's already under-funded and over-stressed mental health system. But much like the warnings about New Orleans fragile levees, these cautions have been disregarded; the mental health infrastructure in much of the country has been gutted by deep cuts in community mental health programs.
Particularly damaged by these budget cuts is the state of Texas, now the new home to hundreds of thousands of refugees suffering from severe trauma reactions as well as a whole range of serious and persistent mental illnesses. How will states cope? Can we expect that mental health disaster relief will receive the same attention and funding as housing, food and other medical needs?
In the first of our series, In the Wake of the Storm, we explore how the million New Orleans evacuees are faring after fleeing the flooded city to an uncertain fate. The city’s most poor and vulnerable populations were the last to leave. We take an in-depth look at the physical and mental trauma that accompanied the storm’s destruction and the toll it will take on the long-term psychological health of those worst hit. Guests include Avrim Fishkind, a psychiatrist working in the Astrodome; Dr. Thomas Bornemann, director of the mental health program at The Carter Center in Atlanta; stress researcher Dr. Robert Sapolsky; and storyteller Laura Sims.
Dr. Peter Kramer opens the program by describing the scope of the mental health crisis facing survivors and the science of human resilience.We then move to Texas where Dr. Kramer speaks with Dr. Avrim Fishkin, who had been awake for 25 hours providing mental health care for the first wave of evacuees that fled New Orleans. Dr. Fishkin is a psychiatrist with the Harris County mental health agency and medical director of Houston’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. He delivers a report from the Houston Astrodome describing the overwhelming task of providing therapy and medication for thousands who witnessed death, destruction and violence in the insecure conditions in the New Orleans’ Superdome.
Dr. Fishkin observed extreme panic attacks, people ripping their clothes and biting their skin as some of the reactions among the evacuees. He described the severe reactions of those being treated for psychiatric conditions or drug addiction, some of whom went days without medication.
For a perspective on how states will shoulder the cost of the massive influx of evacuees we turn to Dr. Thomas Bornemann, director of the Carter Center Mental Health Program in Atlanta. He lived through the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Andrew and studied both crises for the National Institute of Mental Health.
Dr. Bornemann reported that states that have already experienced budget cuts for mental health services could be further swamped by the scale of the need of New Orleans' disaster victims. He predicts that incidents of depression, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder are likely to continue among storm survivors as well as emergency response workers who were first on the scene. Dr. Bornemann says the only hope for recovery is a sustained effort that does not end when it stops being a breaking news story.
Next, The Infinite Mind's Emily Fisher interviews Dr. Robert Sapolsky, author of A Primate's Memoir and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. Dr. Sapolsky is Professor of Neurology and Biology at Stanford University. Dr. Sapolsky discusses how stress affects the body and mind, and what we can do about it. For most of the year, Dr. Sapolsky works at Stanford, where he heads a laboratory that pioneers research in how brain cells react to stress. He also spends several months a year in the African savannah, where he studies how baboons cope with stress.
In speaking about his work with the baboon troop, Dr. Sapolsky says a key factor in how a baboon responds to stress is associated with how well the animal is socially connected. Baboons who have more social contacts and engage in group activities like grooming, are less stressed than their more solitary counterparts. When comparing the stress response of humans and baboons Dr. Sapolsky asserts "they're two sides of the same coin." For humans, being part of a supportive social network, for instance, a religious community, can help to provide this key sense of being heard and understood, helping to lower stress levels.
To contact Dr. Sapolsky write to Department of Biological Sciences Stanford University Stanford, CA 94305 or check out the web site for Stanford's Sapolsky Laboratory.
Finally, the program concludes with storyteller Laura Simms. She shares with our listeners an Arabic story, versions of which are told all over the world. This version, 'The Gazelle,' which comes from Saudi Arabia, is a poignant testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of tragedy. Simms describes the story's significance as " how we come to recognize that regardless of what has happened to us we really are not alone in this experience."
"There was once a hunter. He had a young wife and a son. They lived in a village near a desert. And his wife spent all day taking care of the house and looking after the little boy. But the little boy wanted to go hunting with his father. `No,' the mother said, `he's too young.' The hunter finally said, `Let him come.' The next day the father took his son hunting. They were tracking a gazelle when the hunter said, `Son, wait here by this tree, don't move. Stay here. You'll be safe.' And the little boy waited by the tree. In a few minutes, when the hunter was away, a giant snake slid down from the tree, embraced the child and killed the little boy.
When the hunter returned and he saw the body of his son, he wrapped the little boy in a cloak and carried his body home. His wife came to the door and said, `What is that?' And the hunter said, `It's actually a very special gazelle, a small gazelle. It is an animal that can only be cooked in a pot that has never been used to cook a meal for a funeral. It--it can only be cooked in a pot from a house that has never known death. Go to our neighbors and--and find a pot such as that.' Well, the hunter's wife went to her neighbors. She went from neighbor to neighbor asking, `Do you have a cooking pot that has never been used to cook a meal of mourning or have you known death in this house? I need a special pot.' Every single neighbor replied that they had experienced death. The woman went to a hut outside the village. And there, she asked again, `I'm looking for a pot that has never been used to cook a meal of mourning. Do you have one?' And the woman there said, like all others, `Thank goodness. We are all healthy now but last year my child caught fever and died, so young. We must accept what happened. When he died, of course, we used our pots to cook the funeral meal. I--I can't help you.'
She went to every house in the village. And then she returned home to her husband and she said, `My husband, there is no such pot. All the pots in the village have been used to cook meals of mourning. There is no family that has not known death and sorrow.' And it was then that the husband unfolded the cloak and revealed the body of their child and said, `My beloved, today it is our turn.'"
To reach Laura Simms, please contact her web site or you can write to her at The Laura Simms Studio 814 Broadway, New York, NY 10003. For more information about storytellers using stories for healing, visit the web site for the Healing Story Alliance.