Jeremy Alford

Need still persists for local crisis counseling

by Jeremy Alford

Two years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita made landfall in 2005, state mental health officials noted increases in the prevalence of anxiety, mood disorders and suicide among the storms’ victims, proving that the mind and soul don’t always rebuild at the same pace as homes and businesses. As 2008’s hurricanes, Gustav and Ike, become more of a memory with the passage of time, there are growing concerns about the well-being of the low-lying communities, like those in Acadiana, which felt the brunt of this most recent season.

There are some indications that the need for crisis counseling may have increased locally between the two historic hurricane years. In a post-Katrina survey conducted by Louisiana Spirit, a state-sponsored mental health agency, identified roughly 9,000 heads-of-households in select Acadiana parishes with serious mental illnesses (Calcasieu Parish, 4,573; Cameron Parish, 265; Iberia Parish, 1,997; and Vermillion Parish, 2,202). Yet since Rita, which was more localized, and then Gustav and Ike, which collectively could have been worse for the region but still had an impact, the crisis counselors employed by Louisiana Spirit have sat down for free, one-on-one  counseling sessions with more than 70,000 individuals in Acadiana.

A state-sponsored mental health agency, Louisiana Spirit relies largely on federal dollars. It received a pre-Christmas boost in the form of a $2.7 million FEMA grant, which covers the assistance provided during the first few months following Hurricane Gustav’s landfall in September. The agency has applied for an additional FEMA grant to bankroll the services provided to hurricane sufferers since then, but the second round of financing hasn’t been announced yet. Pierre Washington, public information officer for Louisiana Spirit, says official word should come down this month and it could be a major boost to the hurricane recovery program. “It could potentially be more money than we saw in the first round,” Washington says.

Louisiana Spirit doesn’t just help people who lost their homes or businesses. It offers group counseling, first responder counseling and specialized counseling for anyone affected by the hurricanes. It’s mission recognizes that recovery is a long-term process, and its recent chase for grants is a concrete example of wanting to ensure services will be available, Washington says. “Life may not return to normal for months, or even years, following a disaster or traumatic event,” he says.

The agency operates a 24-hour crisis line: 1-800-273-TALK.