Katrina Survivors Still Struggling With Storm's Psychological Toll

One year after Hurricane Katrina smashed into Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, washing away hundreds of communities and lives, FOXNews.com's Catherine Donaldson-Evans visits Slidell, La., to find out first hand how one town is determined to rebuild. This is the seventh of her series of exclusive reports.

SLIDELL, La. — Wanda Jensen had always been a happy person. She wasn’t one to get down.

But when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and left widespread desolation in its place, it also left many affected people struggling with depression, anxiety and other forms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Jensen, a resident of the Slidell, La., area, was one of them.

Though her elevated home on Lake Catherine only got a foot-and-a-half of water – damaging the first floor but sparing the second – Jensen was dismayed by the destruction she saw all around her.

She and her husband rented a house in nearby Covington, La., for the six months following the hurricane. And for six months, she was so despondent that she could barely get out of bed.

“I was really depressed there,” said Jenson, 74. “I just didn’t have any interest. All I wanted to do was sleep. I pretty much did that. I hibernated for a while.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Anwant Chawla — who works at the two main local hospitals, Slidell Memorial Hospital and North Shore Regional Memorial Hospital, neither of which sustained serious storm damage – said he has seen a 50 percent increase in cases of psychological problems related to Hurricane Katrina and now has twice as many patients as he did before the storm.

“I have seen chronic insomnia, chronic depression and chronic pain,” he said. “It could be a result of all kinds of factors – the size of the storm, the severity, the loss, the family crisis, the financial crisis.”

About 23 percent of people in the states most impacted by the disaster – Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi – have suffered from depression in the year since Hurricane Katrina, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll published last week.

Twenty-seven percent have grappled with anxiety, 26 percent with trouble sleeping and 18 percent with difficulties in marriages or relationships, the survey of 602 adults who registered with the Red Cross found.

All are symptoms of PSTD, according to Chawla, who said there are five phases patients suffering from the syndrome go through: denial, anger, bargaining (Why did this happen and not this?), depression and acceptance.

“You need to let those stages take their course,” he said. “I tell my patients it’s like graduating from each one of them, one at a time.”

The staff at the hospitals, both of which stayed operational in the aftermath of Katrina in spite of the fact that many employees had evacuated, also had difficulties coping with their own losses. Chawla set up a crisis intervention twice-daily group session for those at the hospitals who needed it and arranged for individual counseling when requested.

One doctor at Slidell Memorial slit her throat in front of her children, he said. He handles three times as many suicide attempt cases now as he did before.

“People are still suffering” a year later, he said.

Mayor Ben O. Morris believes the most underreported impact of the massive storm is the psychological one – or what he calls “the human toll.”

“The frustration and depression among affected people is not terribly evident, but it’s there,” he said. “The human toll is huge here, especially among the elderly.”

Jensen said almost all her friends have battled depression in some form or another in the year since Katrina.

“It was just kind of like having the rug pulled out from under you,” Jensen said. “It was the feeling of being displaced.”

The retired Bell South manager, usually an avid painter, lost all her artwork and paint supplies in her first-floor studio to the flooding. For a long time, she wasn’t able to pick up a brush or create anything.

Even after she and her husband returned to the Slidell area, she didn’t want to socialize or see anyone.

“I was just kind of withdrawn,” said the mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. “All I wanted to do was go sit in a corner. I was functional – I could do things around the house. But it makes you feel weak. That’s not how I am.”

Eventually, Jensen went to her doctor, who put her on antidepressants. She also got more involved in the Slidell Art League again and with a community group trying to secure federal money to rebuild the sinking wetlands. And she started attending weekly workshops held at the home of another artist friend, Barbara Gaines.

Little by little, she began to feel like herself again. She’s even done one painting that she’s entering in a competition for Art League members.

“Once I started taking medication, I started to come around again,” Jensen said. “And that’s where this little group of friends came in. There was a lot of talk about what had happened. It was talking to my friends about their problems and my problems that helped more than anything. I’m doing a lot better now.”

Like many residents of the most devastated areas, Jensen still feels anxious about the future and about the prospect of another major hurricane – especially because she feels less protected from the elements now than before Katrina.

But she also knows she is lucky, and she’s begun to have hope again.

“The only thing I can look back on that might have caused it is I’ve been spoiled with a very good life,” she said. “You have to get up and get back. We’re very fortunate.”

Part I: One Year After Katrina, Slidell, La. Shows Gulf Coast’s Determination to Rebuild

Part II: Katrina-Battered Slidell, La., Must Also Rebuild Arts Scene

Part III: Slidell, La. Small Businesses Among Katrina's Many Victims

Part IV: Slidell, La., Sheriff Fights to Keep Down Crime After Helping Town Survive Hurricane Katrina

Part V: Southeastern Louisiana's Ecology Slowly Returns Following Hurricane Katrina

Part VI: Schools in Slidell, La., Get Back on Their Feet After Hurricane Katrina