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 CNS Story:

HURRICANES-RECOVERY Aug-9-2006 (760 words) One in an ongoing series. xxxn

Door-to-door post-Katrina counseling critical to recovery

By Peter Finney Jr.
Catholic News Service

NEW ORLEANS (CNS) -- The long haul is here.

Every day, teams of counselors and social workers with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans visit hurricane-devastated neighborhoods and go door-to-door asking people simple questions related to complex problems.

Behind every door is a Katrina survivor with his or her sobering story. The stories haven't changed much since Katrina hit nearly a year ago, and that is perhaps the saddest indicator of a community in the midst of a collective mental health crisis.

By early July, social workers and counselors with Catholic Charities' Louisiana Spirit outreach program, had personally visited 65,000 people and reported spikes in domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, depression and suicidal tendencies.

Now the program is in danger of elimination because the Federal Emergency Management Agency is refusing to pay for certain previously approved and budgeted services, leaving Catholic Charities with a $20,000 daily shortfall and an uncertain future.

A recent report by The New York Times noted that the annual suicide rate in New Orleans tripled in the four months after Hurricane Katrina -- from fewer than nine a year per 100,000 residents to 26 per 100,000.

Dr. Elmore Rigamer, medical director of Catholic Charities in New Orleans, said he isn't in a position to contradict the apparent threefold increase in the suicide rate, but he does know from the firsthand evidence gathered by his team of 140 Louisiana Spirit workers that the community's mental health is teetering.

"The level of anxiety and people feeling overwhelmed and saying 'I don't know if I can take this' is up," said Rigamer, who is a psychiatrist.

Many people have been "stymied by the insurance companies and by the hopelessness of the hoops they have to jump through to get funds. It's sort of an urbanwide malaise," he told the Clarion Herald, New Orleans archdiocesan newspaper.

The Louisiana Spirit program is changing lives the old-fashioned way -- by reaching out to people instead of waiting for them to come forward for help.

Every day Louisiana Spirit regional director Heidi Nuss colors in a map with a yellow marker to indicate where a team has been. Social workers provide an empathetic ear and emotional support, and then leave the person with an updated resource list for agencies that can provide needed services. If during the conversation the person looks distraught, Louisiana Spirit can send a counselor to the person's home within 24 hours for up to five visits.

"No other program sends a licensed counselor to your door to come to see you," Nuss said, adding that there is no eligibility criteria to get the counseling. "All you have to do is say, 'I want to talk to somebody.' That's the eligibility."

Tracy Cormier, the children's team clinical manager, said she has witnessed an increase in nightmares and "regressive" behavior such as children wanting to sleep with their parents. But she said there is a critical lack of psychiatric resources in New Orleans: Only 10 beds are available for adolescents needing psychiatric help, and there is no "respite" program that would allow children to get away from angry parents.

"We are seeing an increase in domestic violence, which transfers to kids," Cormier said.

Catholic Charities also has two related programs to help people deal with post-Katrina realities. Counseling Solutions -- which was in place before Katrina -- provides counseling, paid through insurance coverage or on a sliding-scale basis, at five locations throughout the archdiocese. Director Bill Swann is attempting to set up group sessions of the program at local churches.

Another program is Katrina Aid Today which offers long-term case management for Katrina victims. The program is funded through a grant provided by the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities USA.

"It's very individualized help that will help someone get on the road to recovery," said director Joseph Mahoney, noting that clients may need help with Katrina-related paperwork or they might need referrals to other agencies or counseling and support services.

The program has helped 1,000 clients since January and is expected to run through next October. Because there is a waiting list, only people over age 55 or who have a disability are currently being advised.

According to Rigamer, not everyone who is depressed needs to see a medical professional, but he advises those with depressive moods to "connect with someone."

Another key to recovery, he said, is to have a plan. "You can't get out of depression if you remain passive and you can't get moving."

END


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