Hurricane prep should include mental health services, experts say

Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina(FOX 8)
Updated: Aug. 7, 2019 at 5:32 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Just the thought of an approaching storm raises fear and anxiety in most of us, but it can be debilitating to those already dealing with mental illness. A group of advocates want your help to make sure people have access to the services they need, even during a potential disaster.

In preparing for hurricanes, we talk about stocking up on food and batteries, but there’s another facet to our well-being that may be overlooked as a storm approaches. A fact Jesse Smith says he knows all too much.

“For Katrina I was totally caught off guard back in 2005. I left with just the clothes on my back," Smith said.

The following weeks took Smith -- a man that had never left the city of New Orleans -- back and forth across the southeast.

“A person who has lived with the experience of mental illness. It was like going through a maze,” Smith said.

The sudden upheaval was too much.

“The word on the street was all over the country that you won’t be able to go back to New Orleans. It’s all flooded out. Everything is washed away, and I panicked,” Smith recalled. "I was thinking, I won’t be able to take my meds. I won’t see any family members. I won’t be able to see my psychiatrist.”

Then, his panic took an even darker turn.

“I was sitting in my bedroom and I said to myself, ‘I want to commit suicide. I’m going to end it here,’” Smith said.

Dr. Benjamin Springgate, the chief of community and population medicine at LSU Health Science Center, said Smith’s experience is not unique.

“After a major disaster, 40-plus percent of the population, that’s four out of 10 adults and children, can experience symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD," Spirnggate said.

Through his Katrina experience, Smith said he’s learned a valuable lesson.

“As a person who lived the experience with mental health and mental illness, you have to be prepared before it happens," he said.

Mental health experts and community leaders are hosting a seminar Friday (Aug. 9) at the Corpus Christi Community Center, to discuss ways to be better prepared before a storm.

“It allows people from different backgrounds to share resources, to share their experiences, care for one another," Springgate said. "As a researcher, I don’t have all the answers. And a community member may not have all the answers either, but together we can probably come up and brainstorm novel solutions to difficult challenges.”

Smith said he’s thankful he was able to get the help he needed, but wishes he had more resources and information in the first place.

“Luckily for me, I picked up a phone book and I contacted the mental health center there in Houston," he said.

Now, Smith has a plan to cope and he shares his experience so that others may benefit, especially in under served communities.

“If people talk through with their neighbors or with the community organization [about] how best they can support one another in a time of disaster, we’re all going to come out better in the aftermath," Springgate said.

It’s a chance to get involved in life-saving plans that last long after the water, wind and rains are gone.

LSU Health Sciences and partners are hosting the free Disasters and Mental Health Conference Friday, August 9, 2019 from 8:30 am to 2 pm at the Corpus Christi Community Center at 2022 St. Bernard Ave. Building C.

For more information and to register call 504-568-5198 or visit their website here: Participants can also register at the event.

Afternoon sessions will have a special focus on services for the LGBTQ community.

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