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'Katrina funk' runs rampant in Gulf

Mental health issues in New Orleans reach epidemic proportions.


A new illness has surfaced in the Gulf Coast region.

They call it the "Katrina funk."

It causes depression, uncontrollable anger which often times results in violence - especially at home, increased use of alcohol or drugs and, in the worst cases, suicide and or murder.

The numbers show it has reach epidemic proportions. According to the New Orleans Police Department, violent crime was up a massive 478 percent in the fourth quarter of 2006 compared to the same period one year earlier. Officer Jonette Williams, a spokeswoman for the department, said some of the increase may be attributable to the fact that people were returning to the city after Katrina. Figures for the first quarter of 2007 were not available.

The effects of the "disease" are being seen on a daily basis, according to a counselor at Cope Line, a New Orleans-based 24-hour telephone crisis intervention service.

"It's a big, big problem here - and it only seems to be getting worse," said the counselor, who asked not to be identified. "People are ready to give up. They either never left during Katrina, or they're returning from shelters and they have nothing.

"We had about 6,000 homeless people before the storm," he said. "That number has doubled because, one, a lot of the housing hasn't been rebuilt, and two, people can't afford to pay the rent even if they can find a place."

He said apartments that rented for $600 per month pre-Katrina are now going for $1,200 to $1,500 monthly, an amount that most can't afford.

"I have a job and couldn't afford that," he said.

In addition to the housing shortage, there is a job shortage.

"Many businesses haven't reopened yet, so just finding a job is tough," he said. "A lot of the stores have stayed closed, so in some parishes you have a hard time just getting food to feed your family. The transit hasn't returned to full operation, which makes it hard to get to another area to shop.

"People are just living day-to-day and they aren't living too well. You have to be a strong-minded person to survive here - and a very strong spiritual person," he said.

Moving out of the area, which seems to be the logical solution, is not an option. Many residents have relied on public transportation and do not own their own vehicles. Many others have nowhere to go and no money to get there.

A counselor with Catholic Charities in New Orleans, which provides counseling and financial and legal assistance to abused women, said the situation was bringing previously dormant mental illnesses to the surface.

"I can't go into details because of confidentiality reasons, but I can tell you that one of my clients came in after being severely, severely abused," she said. "Apparently her husband had a hereditary mental illness that had lain stagnant for years. However, the stress of the storm and losing his job brought this to the surface and he's turned into a violent paranoid schizophrenic.

"Unfortunately," she said, "we're seeing things like that over and over."

Williams of the New Orleans Police Department confirmed that reports of domestic violence were up over pre-Katrina days. She put the increase at 15 percent.

However, Mary Claire Landry, director of Catholic Charities, said the increase is much higher. In the first quarter of 2007, she said her organization served more than 300 abused women, more than it ever served in an entire year prior to the storm.

"Domestic abuse has always been a serious problem in this area," she said. "The reality is that in the past five years, Louisiana has been in the top five for the number of homicides committed by a domestic partner. However, since the storm, it has become more severe.

"We're either seeing first-time physical abuse by a person who previously has been verbally abusing, or we're seeing more severe abuse and we believe it's stress related," she said. "Living in close quarters makes things worse, then add all the other issues on top of that and you've got problems."

Landry also said finding a way out of an abusive situation has become even more difficult.

"In the past, women could go to the home of a family member or to her church for help," she said. "Many families don't even have homes anymore and a lot of the churches haven't come back yet. There have been serious issues all along. Katrina just exposed them."

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