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“They Need People To Talk To” – Katrina 2006

They Need People To Talk To – Katrina 2006

Bucks County Courier Times
Substance abuse is on the rise on the Gulf Coast, officials say.

Months spent living in cramped trailers is pushing some families to their breaking points. And for many people struggling to rebuild, 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 Doylestownbased psychiatrist who works 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 trying to help with those other needs, such as counseling services.

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 hardhit communities there. Benzio said after a Thursday meeting of relief project leaders that area residents also plan 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 … 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 are self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, she said. And domestic violence is a growing problem.

Hancock County’s mental health resources have been depleted, courtesy of budget cuts or the fact that many counselors have moved away. Howard said many people seeking help have to wait two or three months to get an appointment.

Benzio said the Bucks Mont 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 some members of the Bucks County Bar Association, traveling to Mississippi next month to help clean out a local courthouse, also expect to take time to let people vent.

Meanwhile, other relief efforts continue.

Groundbreaking ceremonies will be held next month for a $1.2-million daycare center paid for by the Bucks Mont 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.

Attorney Bill Eastburn, who’s helping lead the Bucks Mont 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.

March 25, 2006 9:49 AM

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