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Katrina Victims Face Increased Anxiety

This article originally ran in the The Intelligencer (Doylestown, PA) Newspaper on March 24, 2006

The Intelligencer

By BRIAN CALLAWAY

Substance abuse is on the rise.

Months spent living in cramped trailers are pushing some families to their breaking points.

And for many people struggling to rebuild along the Gulf Coast, even the sound of rain or a steady wind is enough to stoke already heightened anxieties caused by Hurricane Katrina.

“You have the acute needs of just basic safety, food, clothing, shelter,” said Dr. Karl Benzio, a Doylestown-based psychiatrist who is working with a local relief effort. “But then after that happens, there’s the aftermath. Once the shock wears off … other things set in.”

Basic needs are still a priority along the Gulf Coast; homes need to be rebuilt, jobs need to be restored.

But as the recovery process drags on, some are now turning to those other needs — counseling services that are sorely lacking in many of the devastated areas.

The Bucks Mont Katrina Relief Project, a local effort that’s already collected $1 million for recovery efforts in Mississippi’s Hancock County, is raising money to hire mental health workers for the hard-hit communities there.

Benzio said after a Thursday meeting of relief project leaders that area residents are also planning to go to Hancock County simply to listen.

“They need people to talk to,” he said. “They don’t want to talk to their peers down there because they’re already overwhelmed.”

Nancy Howard, the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center’s coordinator for services in Hancock County, said by phone Thursday that many in her community need such help.

“In the beginning, it was people, the shock of “Oh my God, everything’s gone,’ ” she said. “Then resurgence: “We’re tough and we can handle this.’

“But starting in maybe February, it settled in what had really happened. “Oh my God, this isn’t going to be over in six months; it’s going to take a few years, and I think that gets people down again.’ ”

Many residents there are self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, she said. Domestic violence is also a growing problem.

Hancock County’s mental health resources have been depleted, meanwhile, courtesy of budget cuts or the fact that many counselors have gone elsewhere to find new homes or jobs. Howard said many people seeking help now have to wait two or three months to see someone.

Benzio said the Bucks Mont relief project has raised about two-thirds of the $60,000 it wants to hire a drug and alcohol counselor and a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

The group is also talking about training “listeners” to be available in Hancock County. Benzio said a group from the Bucks County Bar Association — traveling to Mississippi next month to help clean out a local courthouse — is also expected to take time to let people vent.

Meanwhile, other relief efforts continue.

Groundbreaking ceremonies will be held next month for a $1.2 million day-care center paid for by the local Katrina relief project.

Area officials are also working to set up a new animal shelter there, coordinate help for Hancock County teachers and collect supplies for thousands of food boxes and children’s gift baskets to be delivered in time for Easter, among other projects.

Bill Eastburn, an attorney who’s helping lead the local relief project, said he had worried that support for Katrina’s victims would dwindle once 2006 began.

Instead, he said, “the energy is getting better, if anything.”

That’s important for Hancock County residents to know, he said, so they don’t give up hope as recovery efforts drag on.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Eastburn said.

On the web: http://www.bucksmontkatrinaproject.org/