Thursday, June 01, 2006

New Orleans Citizenry, Mental Health and Harry Anderson?

Improbable terms to put together, aren't they?

Last night, at Oswald's Speakeasy, Harry Anderson (probably best remembered as the judge in Night Court and the star of Dave's World) held a town hall meeting on the state of mental health in New Orleans. Harry, who has been holding town hall meetings since the fall of last year, graciously opened the doors to his club to locals and experts in an effort to help find out as he puts it, "how're we doing?"

The evening started out with a remarkable photo piece that was filled with very graphic images of the storm. One that struck me was a photo of Ray Nagin in a DESIRE tshirt, looking utterly shellshocked and exhausted. There were photos of bodies--in trucks, in wheel chairs, in water. There were photos of heroism and there were photos of children. Lots of photos of children. It was beautifully done and left the audience quietly applauding but clearly in their own space. I kept going back in my head to the photos I took of the devastation. Some on the screen were the same as what I'd seen in my camera. No doubt others in the audience had the same reaction.

It was explained that there had been a discussion among the experts prior to the showing about the appropriateness of showing it at all. The decision had been made that they should show it as it would put all of us on a level playing field emotionally.

It did. I was near tears. It broke my heart, but I didn't sob as I would have even four months ago, nevermind 8 months ago. Progress.

The audience was brave and stood there emotionally naked in some cases asking questions.

The citizens of New Orleans are regularly assumed to have lost possession of their mental health by any number of measures applied by outsiders. Hell, they live here. Isn't that enough to make their "mental health" questionable? I guess. If that's how you look at it.

Then there is the booze, the fact that they walk down the street seeing silver people pretending to be statues and don't miss a beat in their step or their conversation, they love the mingled aromas of jasmine, red beans and old buildings. They decorate their houses with antiques, gorgeous fountains and their fabulous ironwork balconies with pirate flags and shiny plastic beads. These people gotta be crazy.

Mental health? BAH! Doesn't apply. If they were sane they'd move somewhere else. If that's how you look at it.

What was discussed was deeper and showed the heart and resilience of the people here. Also showed the fragility of the children and the depths of the traumas to young and old.

One of the psychologists on the panel said that there are six year olds who think a hurricane is coming TODAY. It's June 1. Start of hurricane season. A storm will come today. They believe it. Another panelist said she's having to make "fun" goals for the kids she's seeing in her practice, and the number of kids being referred is going up. Fun goals? "They don't know how to have fun. We have to actually set goals for them to play, to have FUN." The psychiatrist to her right said that's happening with grown ups as well. We've all been so busy with what he called the "plastic" things of life, talking with insurance adjusters, hassling with FEMA, fixing houses, dealing with finances that we've forgotten how to have fun. What? In New Orleans!

One man said he had gotten lost in the swirl of negativity, he said has become very cynical. Another shouted from the audience, "If you ask anyone outside of here, we don't DO anything positive!" The audience laughed. We see so many "New Orleans is stupid, inept and corrupt" reports in the MSM that although we try to brush it off, it does leave a scar.

People talked about the sense of betrayal on so many levels, from government to family. Several in the audience agreed. The psychiatrist (gee, I wish I could remember their names, these people were wonderful and informative) said that yes, we were reeling and dealing with the fact that the social contract we thought we had with our government and others, had crumbled. He said that finding out there wasn't a social contract after believing that there was for 20, 40 or even 60 years was a trauma.

Another professional in the audience said that we here are not just dealing with one trauma. She says what she's seeing is four traumas: Katrina the storm, the aftermath, the delays in response, and yes, the social contract being shattered. Personal loss on so many levels.

The experts also talked about the money. It's just not coming in as fast as it should be and certainly not going where it needs to go. The big bureaucracies are holding up grants and it's the smaller organizations that are actually getting things done. That is the same thing we saw when we first returned here the first week of September. (One of the psychs said that he'd looked into this, and it had taken 24 months to get ANY funding for mental health after Hurricane Andrew, and 18 months to get money for mental health issues for the survivors of 911.)

I've been writing for months about the emotional rollercoaster everyone is on here. The stress levels are ruining marriages, according to these experts, and hurting everyone's health (months ago I wrote about all the heart attacks post-Katrina. It might have been my first post on this blog. Can't remember it's been so long now.) New Orleans has lost half its population and over 6000 mental health practitioners, according to their statistics, but the need for those practitioners is higher. One of the panel members said she had started a program slated to run for 18 months. She had to close the rolls in less than two months because of the demand.

We're all wondering if we're going to see a rise in PTSD when the first evacuation order is announced, or the first storm is glimpsed in the Gulf. All the experts agreed that we can expect mass panic.

Depression and grief are rampant here, and one of the panel members said we can expect a two year healing process. The usual varying stages, and someone in the audience said, "I get them all in any given day!" The rest of us laughed and felt the same, as did the professionals, who were very honest about their own issues. The elder of the panel, the one who talked about the social contract, said that his father keeps asking him why he stays. His answer was that he learned from his father that you finish what you start and you never leave your patients, but that he was tired of people asking him why he stays. Many of us feel that way.

In the last two weeks we've seen headlines like:
"New Hurricane season promises to be busy one." (Honey, let's buy a generator.)
"Hurricane experts say that more storms are probable on the Atlantic Coast than the Gulf this year." (But the caveat is that no one can actually predict that very accurately.)
"Levee that was repaired dropped six feet over night due to soft soil." (HUH? Who ARE these guys analyzing the soil and levee depth? Bring in the Dutch or the Japanese.)
"New Orleans sinking at an inch a year, faster than previously thought." (Did the ACoE consider this? Are they NOW considering this?)
"Evacuation plan unveiled, mandatory evacuation for anything over Cat 2." (Cat 2 hitting here or Cat 2 in the Gulf??? Um, what? Mandatory? Is that the same as forced? No? Okay.)
"Home insurers pulling out." (Fine, don't let them write any car policies either until they start covering homes. California pulled that off, we should do it too. Forbid them to write policies on anything else if they won't write a homeowner's policy.)
"Levees will be repaired delayed, completion expected by August 1." (Does that include armoring?)
"Volunteers funding ended, pullout scheduled for June 1." (But they're doing such a great job! What are these people thinking?)
"FEMA housing vouchers program coming to an end." (What's going to happen to these people?)
"Another body found in an attic."

Sometimes it's hard not to be exhausted.

The good news is that the room at Oswald's was full, and honest, and was a great community step forward in confronting the grief, the rage, the sense of marginalization. The interdependence of us all was mentioned and understood. We may feel apart from a lot, but in that room, we felt a local social contract.

Thank you, Harry. Thanks to the experts. And thank you, you insane New Orleans folks.


7 comments:

Marco said...

Great well put!

Gina in N'Awlins said...

Thank you for a great post.

Cheers!

Dangle 24-7 said...

My head hurts. Sorry for being so late in reading this. Excellent job. I needed to be there!

saintseester said...

Great post - thanks for letting us into your lives. I have to comment on the "fun" issue - how odd it is to think of New Orleaneans unable to have fun. And then, when you do try to get back to normalcy in the fun department (ala Mardi Gras), everywhere else, people were criticizing you for that. You can't win!

Just know that you are in the hearts of former N.O. residents who never forget what its like to live in one of the jewels of America. We'll keep harassing our government - they have to realize we cannot continue to turn our back on an entire city; nor nitpick the decision making that we cannot begin to understand because we are not living it.

JP said...

Great article...Harry gives me hope, I wish I'd had time to catch a show at Oswald's during my visit.

Blue Eagle said...

It took years for me to learn how to have fun again after the death of my late partner. I was suffering from depression for years afterward and I didn't even know it. Someone had to point it out to me, I didn't even realize it. 15+ years later and I'm still not as happy-go-lucky as I was before his death, although having been in a wonderful relationship with a crazy, fun man for 10+ years now, I am much better.

mchebert said...

Nice post.

I wanted to ask you, and any of your readers, if you would be interested in participating in a web project.

I have been blogging about Katrina and other things for almost a year now, and I want to commemorate the 1 year anniversary of Katrina by blogging each day starting August 28, retelling the story of what happened to me that week. It is something of an online re-enactment of Katrina.

I thought if I could get enough fellow bloggers to join me, we could create an online "oral history" of that terrible week. I think it would be very interesting, and unique, and might attract some attention.

If you are interested, please check out the project guidelines on my website.

http://www.drhebert.squarespace.com/the-katrina-blog-progject/
I would like to see you be a part of this.

P.S. I have absolutely no financial investment in this; I am selling nothing. You will notice that my webside has no ads on it whatsoever.