Holiday Blues Hit Katrina Victims

Michelle Thomas, center, and her two daughters A'Shanti Bush and Maia Bush pose in the living room of their rental house in Abita Springs, La., Dec. 3, 2005. The family is stressed about celebrating the holidays after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their New Orleans home.
For three months after Hurricane Katrina's waters consumed her home, Michelle Thomas locked her stress deep inside and put on a brave face for her husband and two daughters.

She focused on the positive: Her Ninth Ward home was destroyed and her hospital job was gone, but her husband and children, ages 7 and 16, were alive and the family was together.

Then came Thanksgiving, celebrated in her mother's cramped home in a small Louisiana town. Since then, the family has moved into a modest rental house they owned in a community an hour from New Orleans. As Christmas approaches, the 36-year-old woman is feeling anything but joyful. Like many survivors, Thomas has the blues.

"I go into a feeling of hopelessness, and I cry," she says.

The holiday season may make dealing with Katrina's fallout even tougher, mental health experts say, especially when there are few doctors, counselors or hospitals to help people deal with the loss of homes, jobs and lives.

"It's almost like a shotgun blast as opposed to a single bullet to social stability," said Bryan Gros, a Baton Rouge psychologist who works for the Mental Health Association of Louisiana. "People are having a hard time."

Thousands remain homeless along the Gulf Coast, where the hurricane hit Aug. 29 and killed more than 1,300 people. It ripped apart families and communities, and wrecked businesses.

About half a million people, both survivors and the emergency workers who went to their aid, may need mental health services, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates. A Katrina crisis counseling hot line in Mississippi got 1,100 calls in its first two months, said Tessie Smith, spokeswoman for the state's mental health department.

Before Katrina, the National Suicide Prevention hot line got an average of about 3,000 calls each month from all over the country. Since the storm, monthly calls have more than doubled, 7,000 in October alone, with most new calls for mental health help coming from Katrina-affected areas, said spokeswoman April Naturale.

Gros said suicides have spiked in Baton Rouge, and New Orleans coroner Dr. Frank Minyard who reviewed two suicide cases in one recent week fears more as the Christmas holiday nears.

"We don't have our medical system here. It's gone. That's a big problem," Minyard said. "There are so many problems. I think it's going to end tragically for some of our citizens, not only here, but who are spread out all over the country."

Life ended tragically for Dr. Lisa Osberg-Wilson, whose New Orleans home and nearby dermatology practice weren't damaged in the hurricane. But most of her patients fled, and she missed her three little girls, who were living with relatives in Texas. Every day, on her commute to and from work, she drove by the destruction, perhaps worrying about the debt for a new office she was building.

Osberg-Wilson killed herself Nov. 4, three days after her 45th birthday.

"I just think she had the weight of the world," whispered her brother, John Osberg of Cleveland, who said his sister had no history of psychological problems. "Things were going well until the storm."

Her husband, Scott Wilson, who is also a doctor, said, "I am very confident in my heart that this would not have happened if the hurricane had not hit us."

He added that he hopes his wife's death brings attention to both post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis she got a week before she died, and the great need for mental health services, which have been wrecked by the storm.