Battling post-Katrina depression

African-American ministers, accustomed to providing spiritual guidance to their congregations, are helping members cope with serious mental and emotional disorders nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina hit.

“It is, at times, overwhelming,” said Rev. Larry Campbell, assistant pastor of Israelite Baptist Church in the Central City neighborhood. He has counseled worshipers with substance abuse problems and suicidal thoughts, referring some to mental health professionals, when possible.

“There’s a sense of hopelessness as it relates to, ‘When are we going to get this city back to where it was?'”

Katrina killed 1,339 according to the National Hurricane Center. It flooded 80 percent of the city, and most New Orleans residents evacuated. Only about half the population is back and the city is slowly rebuilding.

African-American churches, like the communities they served, were hit hard, and many are still struggling to regroup.

“They are being called upon to do all kinds of phenomenal things, in terms of dealing with the loss and the pain,” said Jennifer Jones-Bridgett, director of PICO LIFT, a statewide interfaith coalition of churches.

Ministers, Jones-Bridgett said, report being overwhelmed by the anxiety, depression and frustration with the slow pace of recovery expressed by many residents of the storm-ravaged city.

“They are dealing with these concerns in their own personal lives, as well as in the lives of members of the congregation who are coming home,” she said.

Black ministers were on the forefront of the Civil Rights movement here, and local church-run benevolent societies have a long tradition of helping needy members.

Religious institutions often supplement scanty city services by organizing anti-crime efforts or establishing community health clinics in poor neighborhoods.

“These were the vulnerable people to start with,” said University of California at Los Angeles psychologist Vickie Mays. “And the city services that weren’t working well before, now really aren’t working at all.”

Studies conducted in Katrina’s wake have found significant increases in substance abuse, depression and suicide.

But only 22 of the 196 psychiatrists who practiced in New Orleans have returned, according to a report published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A state-run psychiatric hospital re-opened last week with 10 adult beds, a fraction of what was available before the storm.

As the city waits for its share of $80 million in federal relief funds allocated for rebuilding the state’s mental health care infrastructure, local pastors are being called upon to fill the void.

Mays, in town for the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association this weekend, helped organize a workshop for local clergy to help them identify and refer people with serious mental health problems.

For ministers like Campbell, the effort will help augment the church’s spiritual mission.

“We always believe the word of God can help in all situations,” he said. “But also there are times when people have psychological issues, and we need to make referrals.”

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