Saturday, March 31, 2007
Thursday, March 22, 2007
'People here are still struggling'
By RYAN LaFONTAINE and JOSHUA NORMAN
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD
Laura Beil (foreground) takes notes while listening to Dr. PerSharon Dixon talk about the medical effects of Hurricane Katrina on Coast families at Pass Road Elementary school.
GULFPORT - South Mississippi - especially its children - is in the midst of the largest health crisis in recent American memory, according to experts who visited with reporters here Thursday.
"To me, it's the most significant domestic crisis that we've seen in a very long time," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, founder of the Children's Health Fund and a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He has been studying mental health in Katrina-devastated areas.
By now, because the story no longer dominates the nation's front pages or network news, many Americans believe the Coast is all cleaned up. Homes are rebuilt. Schools are reopened and hospitals, churches, barbershops and Wal-Mart are all back to normal.
But those Americans don't take showers in FEMA trailers. Their children don't figure algebra equations in portable classrooms. They don't attend church in tents and they don't drive along miles of abandoned landscape on their morning commutes.
The question of whether South Mississippi has been forgotten will have devastating effects on the mental health of local families, according to the experts who spoke to a group of health reporters from across the country visiting the Coast with the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Through tours of the devastation in Louisiana and Mississippi, the reporters have heard over and over again the varying impacts of what one expert described as the "devastating second phase" of hurricane recovery.
Children are in trouble physically and mentally, especially those among displaced families. About 80,000 children are in families still displaced from Katrina, and of those, experts say about a third are already showing behavioral, social or academic problems.
"We lock them in these trailer parks where access to services is hampered by the conditions they find themselves in," Redlener said. "The big treatment is to get these families back into their normal environments."
The federal government recently gave a four-year extension to trailer contractors, which Redlener said is a sign this problem "is not going anywhere anytime soon."
He said recovery - emotional, economic and physical - has sunk in the morass of bureaucracy and political posturing at every level of government.
"It's one thing for adults, but here we have children developing physically, mentally and emotionally under these conditions," he said.
Dr. Persharon Dixon, who runs the Mississippi Gulf Coast Children's Health Care Program, which sends a free medical bus around to local schools, said the parents of four students have been victims of suicide in the past few weeks and one child attempted it. Those are just the cases she knows about.
"The people here are still struggling with housing issues and insurance issues," Dixon said. "They are still under a lot of stress."
The bus, which sees 20 to 40 children a day, will soon be equipped with a video system so other psychologists can monitor sessions with Coast children and offer a diagnoses from their offices around the nation. It's an effort to help ease a physician shortage and handle a boom in uninsured children.
Redlener said the problems in Mississippi were actually more obvious than in Louisiana. He said the recovery has "absolutely failed," many children are depressed and missing school, and families should have been out of trailers "a long time ago."
"The actual interventions that these kids need are straightforward and (involve) a sense of hopefulness." Redlener said. "If we don't do anything differently, we're heading down a path that we're really going to regret. All of us are going to regret it."