In 2012, as social worker Danielle Wright was conducting behavioral health screenings in public schools around New Orleans, she kept meeting students in their preteens or early teens who were suicidal.

Part of Wright’s job was to go to schools and assess the overall mental health of students who were participating in a sexual and reproductive health education program run by the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, a New Orleans-based health nonprofit where she worked at the time. Wright said these screenings were supposed to take up about an hour of her day, but that she often found herself at a school for an entire day trying to connect students who were suicidal with behavioral health treatment and support.

Many of the schools didn’t employ mental health professionals, and New Orleans as a city didn’t have adequate resources to help its adult population with mental health crises, let alone kids.

“So it felt demanding and I felt incredibly overwhelmed to meet those immediate needs,” Wright said. “And then I also felt this overwhelming responsibility to address this larger issue.”

That larger issue, Wright said, is the lingering effect of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath on New Orleanians, who were mentally scarred by the disaster and left unequipped to handle all the ways it transformed the city. The students Wright worked with were experiencing mental health symptoms — grief, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, suicidality — related to a disaster that was made more severe, in part, because of climate change. 

Following Katrina, a slew of subsequent hurricanes, tropical storms and floods have ravaged New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana. So have other environmental stressors, including extreme heat, drought, sea-level rise and wildfires. Taken together, these stressors pose an existential threat to the mental well-being of Louisianans along with putting the physical environment in jeopardy, according to mental health professionals who focus on how climate change affects mental health.

In 2014, Wright founded the nonprofit group Navigate NOLA, which teaches youth in the city social and emotional skills to help them withstand environmental disasters and stressors. The group teaches students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade skills like responsible decision-making, self-awareness and self-management.

Della Wright (no relation), the group’s assistant director, talked about how climate disasters affect people’s mental health at a webinar on climate grief hosted by the National Black Environmental Justice Network in August.

“As the climate changes, the unfortunate truth is that we have more and different disasters than ever .… Disasters are a huge source of trauma, individual and collective. During a disaster there are spikes in anxiety, panic attacks and the real fear of safety for yourself and others in your home or community,” she said.

Beginning to understand decades of trauma

Researchers are just beginning to form an understanding of how climate change can affect mental health. And studies looking at how exposure to climate-attributed ecological disasters and extreme weather affects social outcomes is even more scant.

But research shows that trauma and exposure to extreme weather and disasters can affect outward social phenomena such as educational attainment, criminality and suicidality.

Higher-than-average temperatures were associated with fewer years of schooling in Southeast Asia, according to a 2019 study. A 2018 study found that warmer-than-average temperatures in Chicago were associated with an increase in certain types of violent crime. Multiple studies on various populations — women, men, adolescents, military veterans and people who are incarcerated — have linked trauma exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder to criminality. Higher temperatures were a greater predictor of suicidality than unemployment in Greece, according to a 2016 study.

Edward Buckles, Jr., director of the HBO documentary “Katrina Babies,” said many of the children who returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina experienced complex trauma from the storm and its aftermath. Credit: Myesha Evon Gardner / Provided to Verite News

And in New Orleans, mental health workers are drawing connections between a recent spike in youth crime and the “collision of disasters,” as Danielle Wright put it, that occurred when Hurricane Ida disrupted the city during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Edward Buckles Jr., director of the 2022 HBO documentary “Katrina Babies,” saw this play out firsthand after he returned his home in Jefferson Parish in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina at the age of 13.

Much of his social network was fractured by the storm as family and friends permanently relocated away from New Orleans. As a result, Buckles said in an interview, he began to rebel and hang out with people who he wouldn’t have before the storm. He was exposed to a world he might not have known if it wasn’t for Katrina.

He saw his first dead body at 14. He heard constant gunshots ringing throughout the city. He lost friends who were close to his age. He said his school, Livaudais Middle School, felt unsafe. And although the National Guard was brought in, purportedly to help maintain law and order, the heightened military presence throughout the metro area added to the stress he experienced.

“It just didn’t feel like a place that was safe, not only for kids, but for anybody,” Buckles said.

Buckles said many of the children his age who returned to New Orleans after the storm suffered from complex trauma, as did he. He was a high school teacher in the city for some time while working on “Katrina Babies,” and he often found himself anxious and exhausted as he listened to both students and documentary subjects recount traumatic events. The emotional toll of living in a region rapidly and radically changing because of climate change weighed heavily on Buckles. And he was far from the only one.

A 2007 study of over 1,000 residents of metropolitan New Orleans found that nearly half had experienced symptoms of anxiety-mood disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, following Katrina. And a different study, published in 2011, found that the majority of New Orleanians who developed PTSD after Katrina didn’t recover within two years.

Cierra Chenier was nine when her family evacuated New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina.They relocated to Lafayette for several months after the storm. Now, Chernier deals with a lot of pain, anger, frustration and sadness over the loss of the city she knew before the storm, she said.

“I’m always operating in a mindset of ‘before Katrina’ and ‘after Katrina,’” said Chenier, who was featured in “Katrina Babies.” “It’s always difficult for me emotionally to see a narrative about the place [where] I grew up that does not match what I know it to be.”

Even Danielle Wright, a mental health professional with over a decade of experience working with people who’ve experienced trauma connected to climate disasters, said she struggled while watching the documentary. 

“[There was] old footage from New Orleans that perfectly demonstrated what the city looked like and felt like before Hurricane Katrina and I had not experienced or seen the city that way since before then it,” she said. “And it was almost unbearable to watch because I have become very disconnected from how much the city has changed.”

A mental health crisis the city’s not fit to handle

Nearly two decades have passed since Hurricane Katrina, and there are some new services that didn’t exist before that can intervene when residents are having behavioral health crises, like its Opioid Task Force, created in 2017, and its Mobile Crisis Intervention Unit, which launched in June. But public health professionals say the healthcare system in New Orleans is still far from equipped to deal with how climate change is affecting the mental health of its residents.

“Therapists are bursting at the seams with long waitlists or just not accepting new clients at all because we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis,” Danielle Wright said.

The New Orleans Health Department has a page on its website dedicated to climate change that offers tips such as “Stay Cool,” “Be Bug Free” and “Breathe fresh air.” That page also acknowledges that climate change will lead to increased levels of mental and emotional stress. Another page lists behavioral health resources, like CrescentCare and the local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Charities and nonprofits, who provide things like crisis intervention and social skills training, fill in the gaps left after accounting for offerings from government-run health agencies and private practices and hospitals. But a 2017 report from the Louisiana Public Health Institute detailed many ways that community-based care groups struggle to meet the overall mental health needs of residents, let alone needs specific to experiencing the affects of climate change.

“Therapists are bursting at the seams with long waitlists or just not accepting new clients at all because we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis.”

Danielle Wright

And one of the biggest changes that’s affected mental health support is the ability of the community, now fractured and diminished, to support people through crises.

After Katrina, the state closed Charity Hospital, along with its 128 psychiatric beds, leaving Orleans Parish Prison as the largest mental health provider in the city. Some of those hospital-based beds were later replaced with the opening of University Medical Center. Still, the city struggles to meet the behavorial health needs of the community, the Louisiana Public Health Institute said in its 2017 report.

“I think gentrification for sure has done a number on community cohesion and neighborhood cohesion, I would say like prior to Hurricane Katrina, that was one of the things that was very unique and special about New Orleans,” Danielle Wright said. “If you are in a neighborhood that’s like native to your family, if something happens, you experience some sort of adversity, the community is there to step in and help to be a protective factor or give you the support that you need.”

But much of the sense of community has eroded as Katrina and other climate disasters, along with gentrification, has reshaped neighborhoods and displaced New Orleanians. It’s one of the reasons why Wright started Navigate NOLA, which helps children build the emotional/mental tools they need to better withstand climate disasters before they occur.

“Creating community cohesion among the school environment, I would say is something that we work really closely with the schools on and work very hard to try to achieve,”  she said. “It’s a protective factor that can promote resilience in the face of adversity. It can serve as a buffer to toxic stress.”

If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, call the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also text “START” to 741741, the Crisis Text Line, to connect with a trained crisis counselor. If you suspect someone of needing immediate help, call 911.

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Veteran journalist Drew Costley (they/them/theirs) is joining Verite News to cover a variety of topics with a focus on health, climate and environmental inequity. Before coming to Verite, they reported...