by LeDayne McLeese Polaski
September 17, 2010
NEW ORLEANS, La. — On Saturday, August 28, 2010, Churches Supporting Churches presented a community forum on mental health issues in the city of New Orleans. Entitled “The Community Speaks: Who’s Listening?”, the forum featured a panel of experts speaking and answering questions on mental health. Scheduled to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the forum acknowledged the ongoing challenges created and exacerbated by the storm and its aftermath.
Event organizer Rev. Dr. Kevin U. Stephens, past director of the New Orleans City Health Department, began his remarks by referring to the storm and saying, “It’s not over yet.” Dr. Stephens, who oversaw a team working in the Superdome in the weeks after the deluge, went on to say, “Two staff people who were with me in the Superdome have since committed suicide. I have physician friends who were with me in the Superdome who not only will not but literally CANNOT reenter that space – even if you offered them a free suite for a Saints game.”
Both panelists and attendees decried the state’s recent decision to reduce the number of mental health beds available in the city. Dr. Rochelle Head-Durham, Medical Director of the State Department of Behavioral Health spoke of the critical need of having adequate inpatient services available to city residents. While generally supportive of the state’s movement toward community-based care, she spoke urgently about the need to create safety nets for those who experience mental health crises. She said, “A mental health system cannot operate without hospital beds any more than a physical health system can.”
Attendee Richard Winder was more direct, lambasting the state for reducing the number of beds even while city officials were advocating in Baton Rouge for more beds. Once the city’s Director of Human Services and a designated leader of hurricane recovery efforts, Winder spoke passionately about the needs he saw in both clients (both children and adults) and among city employees working to rebuild the city even while dealing with their own personal devastation. Speaking after the forum, Winder called the state’s decision to reduce beds “an abomination.”
Several panelists spoke of the potentially tragic consequences allowing people in dire mental health crises to go without the intensive care that inpatient beds make possible. “The largest mental health institute in the state is the jail” said Kevin Stephens while relaying stories of crimes committed by people who needed to have been in treatment.
Panelist Judge Calvin Johnson, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Human Services District, laid some of the blame on the city itself. “As a community, we have to decide what’s important,” he said, “New Orleans does not spend a penny of its own money on behavioral health issues.”
The public is invited to further conversations on this topic:
“Are You Okay?”
October 9, 2010 – St. John Baptist Church, 8540 Panola St, New Orleans, LA 70118
Pastor Donald Boutte
“Are Your Children Okay?”
October 16, 2010 – Saint Maria Goretti Catholic Church, 7300 Crowder Blvd, New Orleans, LA 70126
“Is Your Neighbor Okay?”
October 23, 2010 – The Sixth Baptist Church, 928 Felicity Street, New Orleans, LA 70130
Rev. Dr. Torin T. Sanders
-LeDayne McLeese Polaski is BPFNA's Program Coordinator.