Hurricane Katrina: Three Months Later
Less than three months after the first of two devastating hurricanes hit the state of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast on August 29, people living with mental illness in Louisiana and NAMI advocates still face a bleak reality.
NAMI’s initial response to the hurricanes included coordinating with advocates across all levels—national, state, and local—to help identify and locate individuals, make information and resources available, identify shelter options, and ensure basic treatment access. NAMI’s Hurricane Katrina Relief Initiative integrated grassroots efforts and supported NAMI advocates by filtering information, identifying resources, and advocating for the mobilization of efforts to meet the basic needs of people living with mental illness in Louisiana and Mississippi.
However, the current situation in Louisiana appears to have gone from bad to worse, particularly in the areas affecting the state systems of healthcare and services for people living with mental illness. In a special legislative session called by Governor Blanco, NAMI advocates learned that the Office of Mental Health was to receive a 10-percent budget cut.
This news is especially distressing because NAMI advocates in Louisiana have already seen a massive decline in the healthcare system for people with mental illness over the past two years. The number of psychiatric beds for adults was reduced, psychiatric beds for children and adolescents were eliminated, case management was eliminated, and medications were restricted as the Louisiana state budget experienced routine revenue reductions.
NAMI advocates are alarmed by the threat of further reductions to an already-shattered system of care for people with mental illness. And adding to their alarm is the dramatic increase in the number of newly diagnosed consumers as a result of the environmental tragedy.
Before the hurricanes, 28 percent of adults and 3.5 percent of children with an identified mental illness were receiving services through the state system. Following the storms, the number of those identified as needing mental health services increased dramatically. New data show that forty-five percent of children affected by the storm were identified as needing mental health services. With this increase in need, the proposed reduction in resources to the mental healthcare system looms ominously.
Emergency funding is coming into Mississippi and Louisiana for mental health, including $73 million in FEMA money, $67 million through the UMCORP (United Methodist), and $37 million TANIF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) going to Family Recover Corp. But this mental health funding is restricted—it is only to be used for identifying the mental health needs of evacuees and referring them for services. And the assumption that services exist for these people in need is false. The existing systems were strained before the storms, and they are not adequate to meet the increased need resulting from the crisis.
Moving forward, NAMI is calling for action, including:
- A prioritization of response to the mental health needs of people living with mental illness in Mississippi and Louisiana;
- The completion of a swift and accurate needs assessment involving community mental health providers, families, and consumers;
- An adjustment of policies that restrict the use of these federal funds to render them more useful in meeting the identified needs; and
- A reevaluation of how the money is distributed, who is involved in the decision-making process, and accountability for the use of the money with respect to the individuals identified in need.
The crisis for people living with mental illness in Louisiana and Mississippi must be addressed to ensure both the immediate and long-term health and well-being of the region.
To learn more about how NAMI is helping in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, visit our Hurricane Katrina Online Resource Guide.