Sat, Aug 12, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Depression and suicides on the rise after Katrina

SNAPPED Stress from rebuilding their lives after the devastating hurricane has driven people like famed photographer John McCusker over the edge

AP , NEW ORLEANS

Like many other New Orleanians nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, John McCusker was experiencing the overwhelming stress of rebuilding his life.

McCusker, a photographer who was part of the Times-Picayune's 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning staff, was seen driving wildly through the city on Tuesday, attracting the attention of police.

He eventually was arrested, but not before he was subdued with a Taser and an officer fired twice at his vehicle. During the melee, he begged police to kill him. One officer suffered minor injuries.

James Arey, commander of the police department's SWAT negotiating team, said he can understand why McCusker seemingly snapped.

"There are all these things you're trying to deal with in your own life -- not enough insurance, family problems, your health problems," said Arey, who already knew McCusker.

"And then day in and day out, we get to see the wreckage of our city and people's lives. It's not easy to handle,'' he said.

Stress is keeping law enforcement officers in New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish busy these days, as they answer many more calls than before the storm for domestic abuse, drunkenness and fights.

Involuntary commitments to mental hospitals are up from last year, and suicides in Orleans Parish have tripled.

What's more, psychologists say that the city's mental health environment is likely to get worse as the anniversary of the Aug. 29 storm approaches, sparking post-traumatic trauma in those who suf-fered losses.

McCusker remained in the city during the storm and continued to document the unprecedented destruction -- except for a leave of absence this summer -- while dealing with the loss of his house and other personal problems.

It seems that on Tuesday the pressure of post-Katrina life finally got to him.

McCusker, a Times-Picayune photographer for about 20 years, was booked with aggravated battery and aggravated flight from an officer, both felonies, Arey said on Thursday. He said McCusker was in a psychiatric hospital.

"He's a great guy, a great photographer and we're all pulling for him," newspaper managing editor Peter Kovacs said.

McCusker is mentioned in a feature on the city's travails in the current issue of American Journalism Review, saying he went back to work on June 20 after a monthlong leave.

During the leave, McCusker spent much of his time sleeping off exhaustion and attending therapy sessions three times a week. He told the magazine he'd essentially become nonfunctional.

"You have to understand the depth of the horror that the city was," McCusker says in the article. "Tens of thousands of people on the freeways stranded. The children begging for food and water. The looting at the Wal-Mart. It was of biblical proportions."

This marks an especially dangerous time for residents in areas still largely destroyed by Katrina, said Jessica Henderson Daniel, director of training and psychology at Children's Hospital in Boston.

Daniel, in New Orleans for a convention of the American Psychological Association, said the storm's anniversary will spark new feelings of loss and more emotional and physical stress.

"Sometimes the initial feelings of loss re-emerge, and sometimes they re-emerge with even greater strength than they had originally," Daniel said.

A key to survival, Daniel says, is to have a strategy to cope with the feelings.

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