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Post-Katrina Stress Disorder: Climate Change and Mental Health

We cannot ignore how disasters from climate change impact people’s mental health.

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Hurricane Katrina is not a conversation starter. Yet, some people seem to think it is.

“You’re from New Orleans right? So, did Hurricane Katrina affect you? Were your home and family devastated?” Nearly a decade after the storm ravaged the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, people still ask me these questions almost immediately after we’ve met. As a Katrina survivor, the subject of the storm is triggering, and I’ve struggled for the “right” answers to these questions since I was 13.

Yes, I’m from New Orleans. Yes, Hurricane Katrina affected me. Yes, we were devastated. But, given the increasing chances of extreme weather events and their aftermath, it affects you too – if you’re not devastated now, you may be soon. Hurricane Katrina is not an entry point into small talk. Nor is it an isolated disaster in our climate history. Rather, it is a starting point for a larger discussion on how increasingly frequent disasters related to climate change affect mental health.

Every time someone casually asks me about Hurricane Katrina, I remember the people who lost more than me.

Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation, are major drivers of climate change. These unsustainable practices alter the composition of the atmosphere and increase ocean temperatures, making hurricanes more intense and frequent. Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest storm to hit the United States in more than 75 years, killing nearly 2,000 people. This number does not include those who died afterward from illnesses directly or indirectly associated with the hurricane. Living in post-Katrina New Orleans is like singing a dirge at a jazz funeral – somebody might dance on the casket celebrating the life of the departed, but the music is still steeped in mourning. We wrap our sorrow in soulful music and brightly colored houses.

Ten years later, the city has been rebuilt. However, repairing infrastructure does not heal a displaced population. Communities affected by human-exacerbated natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, take a long time to recover. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonplace. This can lead to depression, the foremost cause of disability worldwide. Both of these mental health conditions can be sparked by distressing events and the grief associated with losing your home, loved ones or both. The suicide rate in Orleans Parish in 2008 and 2009 was twice as high as the years before Katrina.

Trauma stains your memory. Every time someone asks me about Katrina, I remember driving to Texas and watching the news as the muddy water rose up to the roofs in my neighborhood. I remember the vivid dreams I had for years after, where I imagined what it would have been like if my family hadn’t evacuated – the nightmares where I was trapped in my attic watching the flood waters lap at my feet. I remember finding out my older brother had drowned in his apartment because he had stayed. I remember my cousin who gave birth to her son during the storm, only to have him helicoptered to a hospital in another city without her. Every time someone casually asks me about Hurricane Katrina, I remember the people who lost more than me.

Rather than just remembering what’s been lost, let’s take action.

There are millions of people around the world who have had to endure similar experiences of loss because of anthropogenic climate change. Climate change means that catastrophic storms like Hurricane Katrina, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, and Cyclone Pam in the South Pacific in 2015 will continue to destroy people’s lives. We cannot ignore how non-hurricane type disasters such as droughts, rising sea levels and fires impact people’s mental health. To adapt to a changing climate, survivors of these catastrophes – especially those in marginalized, low-income communities – need long-term physical and mental health services.

We are all complicit in causing climate change, especially those of us from more industrialized countries. Yet, we avoid talking about it because it feels overwhelming. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. We must assume our responsibility to make positive change through action on climate change. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and there will be a People’s Climate March in New Orleans on August 29, 2015. Other ways to get involved include reducing your individual carbon footprint, working with environmental organizations in your local community and joining in the global discussion leading up to the international climate talks in Paris this December. Rather than just remembering what’s been lost, let’s take action so others don’t have to live with the psycho-emotional scars that accompany trauma.

Hurricane Katrina isn’t a conversation starter, but climate change and its effect on our health should be. Are you going to add your voice?

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