UCLA leads national effort to address New Orleans' mental health needs

To address the enormous mental health needs of New Orleans, UCLA psychology professor Vickie Mays is leading a national effort to provide mental health education and training -- including to New Orleans' parents, families, the clergy and mental health providers -- Aug. 89.

"There has rightfully been a lot of attention on ensuring that the people of New Orleans have safety, shelter, food and medicine, but in addition to issues of survival, many people in New Orleans in response to Katrina have very serious mental disorders as well as severe emotional distress," said Mays, director of the UCLA Center for Research, Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities. "If we don't intervene with the mental health needs of children now, we could see a generation in New Orleans that will experience depression, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and other chronic problems. We don't want to let the downward cycle start."

Federal officials estimate that 500,000 people are in need of mental health services because of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, many of whom are ethnic minorities, and that 30 percent of New Orleans residents are suffering from serious mental health problems, Mays said. Federal officials state that another 20 percent are in need of help, although they do not meet the criteria for a diagnosed disorder. The mental health disorders include post-traumatic stress, anxiety and severe depression, she said.

Mary Joseph, director of the Children's Defense Fund in New Orleans, described the city's mental health crisis as "terribly serious" and one that transcends class, race and age.

"Children may have new toys, but they have lost a sense of community; they have lost the things that anchor us," said Joseph, whose organization is one of the project's partners. "Single mothers are in a real bind; life for them was hard enough before Katrina. The mental health system in New Orleans needs re-building from top to bottom."

Community services that are back in New Orleans report that adults are exhibiting stress related health problems and having difficulty dealing with issues of family life in such an abnormal environment, and that children are suffering as well, said Carmen Weisner, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers' Louisiana Chapter. Support systems in the community are struggling, she said.

"Social workers in New Orleans see the treatment of the residents of this great city is as critical as the rebuilding of homes and businesses," Weisner said.

The New Orleans mental health project, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, needs additional volunteers.

"We're looking for volunteers from A to Z," Mays said. "We're looking for people with heart and passion and a real commitment to help, over a short time. You don't need a background in psychology to help. Check our website to learn how you can help -- http://www.minorityhealthdisparities.org/ -- call our offices at (310) 206-5265 or e-mail us at [email protected]."

Volunteers who speak Vietnamese and Spanish are especially needed, as are volunteers with computer skills, including Web development. Volunteers also are needed to help the project collect books and school supplies for children, and prepare materials for self-help efforts.

Joseph is hopeful about the mental health program, saying, "New Orleans needs a new way to approach mental health and new places where people can seek mental health care without a stigma attached to it. I like the folks at the table. They have the creativity and the professional credentials to make this work."

The American Psychological Association is holding its annual convention in New Orleans Aug. 1013, and more than 6,000 psychologists from across the country are expected to attend. Mays is asking psychologists to arrive early to volunteer for a series of educational and training sessions for mental health providers, for clergy, and for parents and teachers. She expects many psychologists, especially minority psychologists, will volunteer their time.

The association meets in a different city each year; they selected New Orleans before Katrina, and resisted suggestions to move the convention, Mays said.

Weisner said she is excited that professionals from throughout the country will assist professionals in New Orleans, and that social workers in the area need information about what interventions have been of benefit to survivors of other natural disasters.

New Orleans has a shortage of mental health professionals right now, and many people have sought help from clergy, Mays noted. A unique aspect of the New Orleans mental health project is that it will provide mental health training to religious leaders from various denominations who have been asked to respond to the overwhelming mental health needs of the community. Mays expects the religious leaders to include Catholics from New Orleans' African American and large Honduran, Mexican American and Vietnamese communities; Buddhists from the Vietnamese community; Christians; and Muslims.

The project's goals include providing training for the mental health needs of African Americans, Latinos and Vietnamese. Mays noted that New Orleans' population includes Hondurans, Mexican Americans and Vietnamese refugees, whose communities faced much devastation from Katrina. She added that many people were turned away from shelters if they did not have documentation of citizenship, and that many African Americans, Vietnamese and Latinos who need mental health services in the face of a disaster may be less likely to seek these services.

"For many in need of mental health services, relief is often sought from clergy, if at all," she said.

What can parents do if they are concerned their children are sad, depressed or afraid?

"Some of the kids in New Orleans are sad and upset at the loss of normal activities," said Mays, who is director of the project and will help design the training program. "Talk to the kids about their fears, look at their art work, see how they are coping, and try to help them feel more secure. A regular family time together provides a sense of safety. Setting up daily routines, so they know, for example, that a specific time every day is family time, provides a sense of security and a structure. Kids may think that their whole world has been destroyed, but they begin to get a sense of normality when they still have a daily routine, even if they're living in a hotel room.

"In addition, know where you can get help, and have a family plan so the kids know where to go and what phone number to call if there is another emergency. Rehearse this with younger children so they will know what to do in an emergency."

The training consists of free workshops for parents, caregivers and teachers on how to recognize signs and symptoms of mental disorders in children, and a multiethnic grief workshop, open to everyone in New Orleans and the surrounding region, to enhance the emotional healing process and increase levels of resiliency. Mays expects the project to train at least 500 mental health providers, 50 clergy and that more than 200 people will attend the grief ritual and child workshop. Child care will be provided during parent-teacher workshops.

"We anticipate that parents and families who attend the workshops will have the ability to recognize signs of psychological distress in their children related to loss and the instability of life after a disaster, and they will know where to seek the appropriate help," Mays said.

The training sessions also will help caregivers who may be overwhelmed to ensure that they are taking care of themselves and to strengthen their emotional reserves, said Mays, whose UCLA center is funded by the National Institutes of Health EXPORT program. She noted that many health care and mental health care professionals have not returned to New Orleans.

The multiethnic, multidenominational workshops are designed to address needs of the clergy and mental health providers that emerged from community organizations and Department of Health representatives in New Orleans, Mays emphasized.

Following Katrina, Louisiana's Department of Mental Health requested an assessment of mental health needs by the Centers for Disease Control. While scores of "3" or more on serious mental health indicators represent the need for mental health services, more than 45 percent of those who participated scored 45 and were in need of mental health services and 25 percent scored 7 or more, indicating a serious need for immediate services, Mays said.

Why is Mays devoting so much time to organize this project in August?

"I have to believe our efforts can make a difference," she said. "If we don't make a difference after Katrina, that's a measure of us as a country. I have to do my part. It's not something I can walk away from."

What happens after this program ends to address the continuing mental health needs of New Orleans?

"We hope to help create lasting connections between mental health providers and the clergy that weren't in New Orleans before, and establish an academic-community partnership in which local universities can continue to assist with psychological services in the local community," Mays said. "In addition, we will leave behind materials on child mental health and emotional well-being, and referral sources with information about the local mental health service providers.

"I hope that the range of training programs that are organized in collaboration with local groups will result in mental health being considered a key element in the efforts to rebuild New Orleans."

The Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, one of the leading pastoral training programs in the country, will continue to serve as a resource to the clergy after the project concludes, providing expertise, mental health provider referral lists, and additional support and consultation.

Mental health training workshops will be videotaped so they can be used to train additional providers in the future, Mays said.


Partners in the project include the New Orleans Department of Health Services; the Children's Defense Fund New Orleans, Louisiana; the Louisiana Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers; the Institute of Mental Hygiene; the Interdenominational Theological Center; the Louisiana Partnership; and the Center for Empowered Decision Making. Faculty and graduate students from Louisiana State University's psychological services clinic will assess children for mental health issues, and students and faculty from Tulane and other local universities also will participate.

California's largest university, UCLA enrolls approximately 38,000 students per year and offers degrees from the UCLA College of Letters and Science and 11 professional schools in dozens of varied disciplines. UCLA consistently ranks among the top five universities and colleges nationally in total research-and-development spending, receiving more than $820 million a year in competitively awarded federal and state grants and contracts. For every $1 state taxpayers invest in UCLA, the university generates almost $9 in economic activity, resulting in an annual $6 billion economic impact on the Greater Los Angeles region. The university's health care network treats 450,000 patients per year. UCLA employs more than 27,000 faculty and staff, has more than 350,000 living alumni, and has been home to five Nobel Prize recipients.

Last updated: 30 Apr 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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