Adding to their frustration, the federal government has yanked funding for a state health department program that provided counseling and other services to flood survivors. The program, Louisiana Spirit, officially shut down Friday, said program coordinator Nicole Coarsey.
Yet while there is now one fewer resource available to those in need, experts predict that the demand for mental health type services will continue to rise in the next year now that people are transitioning away from short-term survival mode and adjusting to the new normal.
“We haven’t seen the spike. We haven’t seen the epicenter,” said Aaron Blackledge, executive director of the local non-profit Crisis Intervention Center.
He says there’s a huge demand for services looming.
“Unfortunately, organizations like ours don’t have the resources to help,” Blackledge said. “I haven’t seen anything like it since Katrina. It’s a tragedy.”
Already, one hospital is reporting a rise in psychiatric admissions.
Dr. Kenny Cole with Baton Rouge General Medical Center said 1,498 people checked into that hospital’s emergency room between August 13 of 2016 and August 13 of this year with a primary complaint that was mental health related — a 14 percent increase over the previous year.
“I think the number is probably much bigger than that,” Cole said.
The reason, he said, is that in some people come in complaining of physical symptoms like insomnia or chest pain when the underlying problem might actually be depression or anxiety.
Although there’s ample evidence that links conditions like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder both to environmental stressors and genetic factors, there’s still a persistent and “arbitrary” stigma against people struggling with mental illness, Cole continued.
And stress also suppresses a body’s immune system, the doctor said. For example, Baton Rouge General surveyed its staff and found that about 37 percent of those who had flooded reported an increased need for prescription medication since the storm.
Physical and mental health “are very much intertwined. They very much affect each other. … It’s really just health,” Cole said.
Theoretically, anyone can eventually reach a point at which they begin to have difficulty coping with trauma and stress. People just reach the threshold at different times explained local psychologist Donald Hoppe.
Anxiety and depression can occur when the body’s self-preservation instincts react out of proportion to stress, he said.
Richard Bryant of the University of New South Wales, an expert on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, said one way to understand PTSD is to think of a mouse in a cage with a light.
If a researcher turns on the light and shocks the mouse, then eventually it will come to fear the light and exhibit symptoms like an increased heart rate and release of stress hormones when the light is switched on. If the researcher continually turns on the light without shocking the mouse, a healthy animal will come to lose its fear, but some will continue to have a fearful reaction, Bryant wrote in a presentation to the Dart Center, a Columbia University agency that provides information on trauma to journalists.
Human psychology is more complex, Hoppe said, and some of it is biological. Violence, strong or weak relationships and other factors during a child’s development can also play a role, he said.
His clients are particularly concerned about the effect the flood has had on their children. He said he’s heard a lot of worry about kids who are now fearful of thunder storms.
At Our Lady of the Lake, the number of adult psychiatric admissions actually went down slightly last fiscal year, said behavioral and mental health executive director Denise Dugas. However, the intake of adolescents — those between 12 and 17 years old — went up from 341 to 548.
While the Lake can provide acute care for a few days to help a patient in crisis or who needs to detoxify, “there’s a lack of the continuum of care that’s needed in this community.”