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Suicide Attempts Increase in Katrina's Aftermath

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On top of the physical destruction, Hurricane Katrina caused enormous psychological strain. In Jefferson Parish outside New Orleans, Emergency Medical Services workers are responding to an apparent increase in the number of suicide attempts, which the EMS workers have to manage along with their own problems. For our series on mental health after the storm, NPR's Alix Spiegel spent time with some of those EMS workers.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

The second suicide attempt of the day came shortly after 10 in the morning, sandwiched between a report of a minor traffic accident and a call from a woman who had injured her leg. EMS crew chief Paul Corello(ph) responded immediately.

(Soundbite of beeps)

Mr. PAUL CORELLO (EMS Crew Chief): One-oh-five, where's that 27 29S?

Unidentified Woman: (Over radio) It's going to be at 4709 Kawanee. They're smelling gas at the location. They're advised she's trying to kill herself. Fire's en route.

(Soundbite of siren)

SPIEGEL: It didn't take long to find the address, a disheveled single-story home with overgrown grass in the front yard. Even from the curb it was possible to smell the gas, a heavy, sour odor in the morning air.

Mr. CORELLO: Smell the gas out here? Got to watch what we go in with, electrical.

Hello?

SPIEGEL: Inside the dark house, an older woman in a dressing gown sat near a stove with all four unlit burners turned to their full `on' position. There were bruises down her face and arms as if she'd fallen, and she smelled like she'd been drinking. Though conscious, she was clearly disoriented and resisted as Corello tried to lead her outside.

Mr. CORELLO: Come on.

Unidentified Woman: No, no, no.

Mr. CORELLO: Come on.

Unidentified Woman: No, no.

Mr. CORELLO: Come on.

Unidentified Woman: No.

Mr. CORELLO: Come on.

Unidentified Woman: No, no, no.

Mr. CORELLO: Follow me. Come, come.

Unidentified Woman: No, no, no.

Mr. CORELLO: Come, come, come, come, come, come.

Unidentified Woman: No, no!

SPIEGEL: One EMS worker, Chad Matthews, spoke quietly with the woman, then returned to his fellow officers to discuss what he'd learned.

Mr. CHAD MATTHEWS (EMS Worker): Her family abandoned her here. They all left before the storm and left her.

SPIEGEL: The EMS officers decided to take her to the hospital for a psychological evaluation, but again, she resisted.

Unidentified Woman: Let me go. I ain't--in a box.

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible) this isn't...

Unidentified Woman: I'm not going anywhere.

Unidentified Man: Well, I'm going to bring you anyway.

Unidentified Woman: No.

Unidentified Man: Yes.

SPIEGEL: They strapped her to a gurney and lifted her into the ambulance. According to Matthews, who's been with Jefferson Parish Emergency Medical Services for over 10 years, since Katrina hit he says he's seen a distinct rise in suicide attempts.

Mr. MATTHEWS: It happens at least twice, maybe three times a day, where people get calls to people who don't want to live anymore. They don't want to be here anymore.

SPIEGEL: And before the storm, how many suicide calls would you answer a day?

Mr. MATTHEWS: One, maybe one. Maybe one a week. It didn't happen often.

SPIEGEL: Jefferson Parish EMS records show that the number of suicides in October this year was the same as in years past, even though the population was significantly diminished. But anecdotally, superviser Mike Guillot, second in command, estimated that the service was seeing as many suicides in a day as they usually get in a week. Another EMS worker reported that on his shift the rate had doubled. And many, like Matthews, say they're struggling to keep afloat themselves.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Honestly, I try not to think about it, because then I'll wind up in the same state as everyone else.

SPIEGEL: But some on the force find it more difficult to push emotions away, like crew chief Paul Corello. Corello is a 20-year EMS veteran with no history of mental disorder who says that he finds himself in an unprecedented position.

Mr. CORELLO: I cry every day, every day. I'm at the lowest point of my life that I think I could ever be. I mean, like I said, my worst enemy is me because when I have idle time, that's when I start to feel real bad. I mean, you know, sometimes I find myself out in the street, knowing I got some errands to go run, and sometimes I can't even figure out where I--why am I here? Why did I end up in this area here? Why did I come here? What did I need to do here? And I can't remember.

SPIEGEL: Like a number of people on the EMS force, Corello has lost his home and is now living in a trailer with his family. He says he tries to keep up a positive front when he talks to his colleagues. He is jovial whenever a fellow EMS worker comes into view. But he privately fears that he will develop port-traumatic stress disorder.

His fellow supervisor, Mario Scarmuzzo(ph), tells a similar story. Scarmuzzo works the night shift and says that the disruption of his personal life has made his job more difficult. He usually takes suicide attempts in stride, he says, but some of the recent attempts have disturbed him, particularly the older people who seem unable to rally, like an experience he had about a month after the storm.

Mr. MARIO SCARMUZZO (EMS Supervisor): It was a little old man that was laying in the front foyer of his apartment. Actually it's two of them; it's one with a lady, too. And they were laying down and just completely--had empty pill bottles, empty liquor bottles and just the family's crying, they're crying, because they have nothing and don't want to be here anymore and they don't want to live anymore and they--just telling me that they can't take it anymore. It affects you also. I mean, you get very affected by it. It's not easy.

SPIEGEL: The EMS department is providing some mental health services to workers who choose to take advantage of them. Monday, though, one worker had a crisis which required immediate psychiatric intervention. For NPR News, this is Alix Spiegel in Washington.

INSKEEP: The series continues tomorrow with Hurricane Katrina flashbacks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alix Spiegel has worked on NPR's Science Desk for 10 years covering psychology and human behavior, and has reported on everything from what it's like to kill another person, to the psychology behind our use of function words like "and", "I", and "so." She began her career in 1995 as one of the founding producers of the public radio program This American Life. While there, Spiegel produced her first psychology story, which ultimately led to her focus on human behavior. It was a piece called 81 Words, and it examined the history behind the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.