Impossible to Ignore: A Mental Health Crisis Changes a Community and a Reporter's Focus: 'Only after Several Months of Covering These Issues Am I Beginning to Understand the Scope and Dimensions of the Crisis.'
Norman, Joshua, Nieman Reports
To be stressed was an assumed state of being for most people on the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. Yet it took everyone, journalists included, more than a year to recognize and deal with the fact that stress can mean more than just short tempers and upset stomachs. Over the long term stress can easily give rise to mental illnesses and physical debilitation. In disasters, unchecked stress can kill individuals and ruin a society.
The Sun Herald also figured that out slowly, but has ultimately responded by addressing the problem headlong. For five months this spring and summer, as the paper's first full-time health reporter, I wrote several stories focused almost exclusively on mental health, a topic rarely covered before Katrina arrived on our doorstep. Now on a fellowship for the Kaiser Family Foundation to cover mental health exclusively, the foundation also provided an intern so that comprehensive health coverage will continue to appear regularly in the Sun Herald.
It took us a while to get to that point, though. Our first storm-related mental health coverage surfaced only in brief mentions in stories often headed in a different direction. On September 13, 2005--about two weeks after the storm--in a column I wrote: "I am exhausted and it shows. ... My vision is sometimes blurry. I lose stuff while just sitting at my desk. I tell the same story twice. Worst of all, I have locked my keys in my car twice in the last five days, having never done so before."
Stress was assumed to be natural and largely dealt with by way of more church attendance, better rest and, for some of us, more beer. But in reporting across a range of stories, we started to notice that government leaders and others were behaving erratically, though everyone usually chalked it up to exhaustion. After a few months, as the ruined landscape we woke up to every day was almost surely the same the next, a general malaise settled in. Few in the newsroom had taken vacations and tempers were shorter and the desire to escape greater. I remember escaping once to a wedding in Vermont a few short months after the storm, and people there asked me if things were back to normal. They still aren't.
I wrote the paper's first article fully focused on long-term adverse mental health affects of disasters in January 2006. A local psychologist had held a conference for health care workers on mentally healing themselves, and here is some of what I reported to our readers: "Even five months later, the mental health issues for health care workers and mental health professionals have not improved dramatically. 'You don't cry during the week ... you cry during church,' said Karen Brassell, a social worker at Biloxi Regional Medical Center who stayed at the hospital during the storm. 'We are all affected by it. So many of our people lost everything. It's hard.'"
A short time after this article appeared we started to hear of people dying of debilitating mental health problems. The first of the so-called "Katrina suicides" began happening mostly in New Orleans but occasionally happened here in Mississippi. Domestic violence rates rose dramatically, as did the numbers of those seeking substance abuse help. "We believe that the victims of Hurricane Katrina will be at an increased risk for mental health problems for many years to come," a doctoral student was quoted as saying in a May 2006 Associated Press story.
Moving to the Health Beat
Still, at the Sun Herald, our watchful eye was turned more on local governments and institutions as they tried to figure out day-to-day recovery issues. Our resources were thin not because of "cheap owners" but because the story of storm recovery was so profound on so many levels that there could never have been enough reporters to tell it in its entirety. I was covering Gulfport, the second largest town in Mississippi situated right on the Gulf Coast dealing with post-storm financial woes. …