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Friday, September 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mentally ill and addicts cut off from care

Schizophrenics disconnected from their doctors and heroin addicts cut off from methadone treatments are among Hurricane Katrina evacuees scattered from Houston to Chicago, mental-health officials say.

Efforts are under way to identify and assist thousands of mental-health patients and substance abusers believed to have been placed in shelters. Federal officials have distributed $600,000 in emergency grants for screenings and crisis counseling.

But thousands more are scattered and unaccounted for, disconnected from treatment, families and other support systems, advocates say.

An estimated 500,000 people with serious mental illness lived in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI).

Dr. Anand Pandya, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and an expert on disasters' impact on mental health, raised concern about how people will resume care in new locations.

"All these people leaving Louisiana need to get their Medicaid activated" in new states, Pandya said. "This is a problem for anyone, but for a schizophrenic, or someone with another serious problem, it would be especially difficult to advocate for themselves."

Some mental-health professionals say cultural, social and racial barriers could hinder the efforts.

"These are people who come from different racial backgrounds and different social classes. They are going to have to work really hard to bridge that gap," says Denver psychologist Robert Atwell, president of the Association of Black Psychologists.

Most who fled are black, including almost 70 percent of New Orleans' population. But most mental-health workers are white; blacks make up less than 5 percent in most mental-health fields, says the federal Center for Mental Health Statistics.

Atwell says there's a stigma in the black community about seeking mental-health assistance, and mistrust of government makes counseling more challenging.

In addition to concerns about the mentally ill, mental-health experts expressed worry over the upheaval among alcoholics and drug abusers.

In Louisiana, six methadone clinics, used to treat heroin addicts and other drug abusers, were destroyed by the storm, said Dr. H. Westley Clark, a treatment expert at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Emily Palmer, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the state received a $150,000 grant to enroll methadone patients, and two drug companies agreed to provide the drug without charge for three weeks.

The suffering of drug addicts might not garner much public sympathy in the face of the overwhelming agony stirred by Hurricane Katrina, but some say it's a plight that should not be ignored.

"They're people. Don't we care about the people?" said Kathleen Kane-Willis, a Roosevelt University researcher who has pushed for greater aid for displaced heroin addicts.

Doctors, counselors and treatment centers across the country are trying to fill the void left by the disaster. "We are admitting a 19-year-old girl who was in a treatment center in New Orleans and was displaced," said John Schwarzlose of the Betty Ford Center in California, where a 30-day stay normally costs $20,000.

Compiled from Newhouse News Service, USA Today and Chicago Tribune reports

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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