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September 14, 2005

NAMI Hits FEMA Policy for Ignoring People With Mental Illnesses In Hurricane Relief

Agency Limits Crisis Counseling to “People Responding Normally to An Abnormal Experience.”

Arlington, VA - The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) today called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to broaden its Crisis Counseling Program to include treatment and services for people with serious mental illnesses.

"It is unconscionable - literally and symbolically - that the Crisis Counseling Program, by the government's own description, provides counseling only to "people responding normally to an abnormal experience,'"said NAMI executive director Michael J. Fitzpatrick in a letter to Acting Under Secretary for U.S. Preparedness and Emergency Response and head of FEMA, R. David Paulison.

Before Hurricane Katrina, an estimated 500,000 Americans with serious mental illness lived in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Less conservative estimates put the figure closer to 1 million. Serious mental illnesses include major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia.

After Hurricane Katrina, people with serious mental illnesses in the Gulf region include those with pre-existingconditionsandthose who because of heredity or other predisposition face the onset of serious illness triggered by stress, loss, disconnections or other trauma from the disaster.

"This is not a temporary, short-term mental health problem," Fitzpatrick said. "Mental illness is a serious, long-term, life-threatening, chronic condition. The best hope for recovery lies in early treatment and services."

Before Hurricane Katrina, President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health called the nation’s mental healthcare system a fragmented "system in shambles."

"Today the system in the region affected by the hurricane is in virtual collapse. The time for focused action is now," Fitzpatrick said.

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The Campaign for Mental Health Reform has sent a letter to President George W. Bush urging him to ensure that those with mental illness are receiving essential treatment, that early intervention and follow-up treatment is made available to survivors, and state and local public mental health systems throughout the country that are absorbing large numbers of evacuees receive assistance to handle the extraordinary new demands on their systems.  Read the full letter from the Campaign for Mental Health Reform. (pdf, opens in a new browser window)

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