Mental health crisis in Gulf

Soon after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in the fall of 2005, faculty at Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice began asking Richard Gelles what the School could do—should do—to help in the recovery.
At the time, Gelles suggested they wait.

“There was a lot of pressure within our School to do something [right away],” Gelles remembers. “But I told them, ‘I can assure you, there will be a lot of mental health issues that will arise at least a year out from now.’”

A recent trip to Hancock County, Mississippi—one of the areas hit hardest by the storm—proved Gelles was right.

Even though Katrina is 18 months in the past, only now is the scope of the mental health crisis in the Gulf Coast fully revealing itself, Gelles says. The recovery process has been slow and exhausting for Hancock County residents. Stress and frustration are on the rise, and with limited resources being dedicated by local, state and federal authorities to mental health in the region, now is the time, Gelles says, when SP2 can really make a difference. The School is now crafting plans to help bolster social services in a county that was devastated by the storm but has received limited attention from the national media.

“One of the unmet needs [in the Gulf] is social services—mental health needs,” Gelles says. “Yes, they’re building housing, but have you seen a FEMA trailer? People have no day care, limited job prospects. Mental health is an issue that is just beginning to crescendo.”

Gelles says he was directed to Hancock County by officials from the Bucks-Mont Katrina Project, an aid group founded by Doylestown lawyer Bill Eastburn in 2005. Since its founding, the group has recruited hundreds of local volunteers to help rebuild a county that lost 80 percent of its housing when flood waters 8 feet high reached 8 miles inland.
Today, 60 percent of the county’s population is living in temporary housing, and Gelles says the physical devastation remains.

“It’s unimaginable that, in the United States, 18 months after a disaster, you can drive through and it might as well have happened yesterday,” Gelles says. “You can’t explain it to people. You can’t explain what 8 miles of dead trees looks like.”

With physical rebuilding moving at a slow pace—while some national chains have moved back to the area, Gelles says most small, family-owned businesses have not— the mental health strain has worsened. And Gelles’ quick survey of the social services in the county revealed that residents just aren’t getting the help they need.

SP2 hopes to change that.

Gelles is working with SP2 faculty to craft a plan that would allow the School’s students to serve some of their required fieldwork time working in Hancock County. The School will also participate in an effort to help consolidate and streamline social services in the area. Gelles also plans to seek input from other Penn schools that can contribute something to the effort.

“We’re now developing a plan that will either be limited to SP2 or, hopefully, will also draw on other Penn resources to help people in this county,” Gelles says. “There is a place there for virtually anyone at Penn.”

Originally published March 31, 2007.

Originally published on March 29, 2007