by Matthew Penix
Shauna James stood trembling in the kitchen before hanging up the phone. Her mind raced. Her body shivered. Was it true?
She finally slid down the wall to the tile floor where she huddled in a ball crying for more than an hour. A colleague, in deep depression after Hurricane Katrina, had taken his own life.
“I just don’t know what to say,” James said. “This world has messed with us all.”
Her story reflects one of more than 30 suicides in the New Orleans area post-Katrina. Suicide rates have nearly tripled in the 11 months since the Crescent City levees broke, and experts say New Orleans is experiencing an epidemic of depression and post-traumatic stress that crosses all socio-economic lines.
Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the deputy New Orleans coroner dealing with psychiatric cases, estimates the annual suicide rate at less than nine per 100,000 residents before the storm. It’s since increased to more than 26 per 100,000, he said.
The real number is likely higher, said Dr. Lee Tynes, director of the Jefferson Parish Human Service Agency. Many self-inflicted deaths remain officially unclassified or wrongly described as accidents, he said.
“Plus we don’t even know about the thousands that have evacuated and not returned,” Tynes said. “The enormity of the destruction when somebody returns to find their business gone or employees lost are constant reminders that perhaps play a factor (in depression) that we’ll never know.”
The effects are even more devastating here, said Dr. Jim Arey, commander of the New Orleans Police Department’s crisis negotiation team, which rolls on SWAT team calls.
Mental health crisis centers have suffered a near collapse with most closing after Katrina, he said, leaving officers unsure of where to take patients.
Arey is demanding the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals open facilities in the area to help field 150 to 180 calls a month. The limited psychiatric wards open are all overflowing.
“You’ll see that same guy you took there that morning walking the streets that afternoon,” Arey said. “As a law enforcement officer, that is very discouraging. We see it every day.”
Arey blasted the DHH saying it has a “moral and legal responsibility to reopen” facilities. He said top DHH officials haven’t returned phone calls inquiring about opening such facilities. DHH did not return calls from CityBusiness either.
New Orleans depression rates were similar to other major cities before 2005, but the mental health crisis skyrocketed after Katrina forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate, many of whom forgot medication or couldn’t find doctors to write prescriptions, he said.
“The longer you stay off your medicine, the more paranoid you become. I’ve been on most SWAT rolls since 1994 and I’ve never encountered people with high-powered weapons armed with a scope,” Arey said, referencing a recent 12-hour SWAT standoff with a mentally disturbed patient in Jefferson Parish. “We have no frame of reference for this. Depression is hurting us everywhere.”
It’s apparent in the business sector.
“I’ve seen it with some of my employees,” said Nikki Leimer, president of Medtrack Personnel Inc. in Mandeville, which also has employees in New Orleans. “But what are you going to do? This was tragic.”
According to the National Mental Health Association, depression is one of the most costly illnesses in the U.S. economy, racking up more than $43.7 billion in absenteeism, work production and treatment costs per year. That averages to about 200 million lost workdays a year, which is more time off than diabetes, arthritis back and lung patients lose combined, national health officials said.
Experts say there is hope. More than 80 percent of people with clinical depression can be successfully treated, according to the NMHA. Experts recommend an environment with soothing music and rewards. They also advise implementing an employee assistance program where depressed employees can set up anonymous appointments with trained professionals.
Something must be done, said James. “We can’t take it. I can’t take it.”•