The only hospital in New Orleans providing in-patient mental health treatment will close next month despite an epidemic of psychological problems plaguing the hurricane-ravaged city.
Even as it faces a skyrocketing suicide rate and increases in cases of depression and post-traumatic stress, the Gulf Coast city is slated to lose the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital, which has been the center for mental health care for residents young and old since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city nearly four years ago.
The shutdown "is extremely unfortunate for New Orleans and for the many children who will be left without what had been an excellent resource," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, president of the Children's Health Fund and a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "I am amazed that nobody in government has found a way to step in and save that resource. But I am quite sure that this is going to have disastrous consequences for the community."
The New Orleans Adolescent Hospital, which is scheduled to close Sept. 1, had operated exclusively for children and adolescents prior to Katrina. When the storm wiped out New Orleans' Charity Hospital, NOAH was the only facility to offer in-patient mental health care. Its closure will save Louisiana $9 million, which it says it will spend on outpatient mental health programs.
Louisiana Secretary of Health and Hospitals Alan Levine said in a statement to ABC News that NOAH is "a relic of the past" that was built to institutionalize mentally ill youth, not help them. In the wake of its closure, the state is reopening clinics around the New Orleans area. "While I understand this move has brought objections from some, it is important to point out that what we had was NOT working," Levine wrote in his statement.
The state is slated to relocate NOAH patients nearly 30 miles away to a hospital in Mandeville, La., a move critics say will hurt needy patients who relied on the local hospital for inpatient and outpatient care.
"When you have a family that does not have a lot of money or insurance and now you're going to ask them on top of having an ill child to travel and participate in their recovery … it's just going to be a huge gap," said Julette Saussy, New Orleans' emergency services director.
The closure only compounds the other glaring shortcomings in the city's ability to help mentally ill children.
Last week, a report by Congress' Government Accountability Office said that a dearth of mental health providers in New Orleans, along with a lack of funding are preventing children who need treatment from getting it.
Most of the city's 196 licensed psychologists fled New Orleans after the storm; only 22 stayed behind, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Most have yet to return, local officials and public health experts say.
The GAO report also said that mental health experts have seen a spike in depression, risky behaviors like drug and alcohol use, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder among the city's children in the years since the storm.
"It's very difficult when you start talking about kids. We've had a rise in substance abuse. There was a rash of heroin overdoses that were affecting our adolescents. And were they intentional suicides? Probably not. But were they attempts at escapism because of things being so difficult? Probably," added Saussy, who said the suicide rate in New Orleans has tripled since 2006.
More than 45,000 children in the city having been struggling with some sort of mental health problem since Katrina, according to a December 2007 study by Mental Health Weekly. But there aren't many professionals around to treat them.
Tens of thousands of children with untreated mental health problems can mean a bleak, crime-ridden future for New Orleans, according to Tulane University psychologist Charles Figley.
"There already have been major problems with regard to incidence and prevalence of youth crime, poverty, problems in school, dropout rates. It's a cascading problem when you don't address mental health issues," said Figley, who is also an expert on disaster-related mental health issues.
"Any society is evaluated by how well they treat their children. And unfortunately these kids aren't being treated well."