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Ticking Time Bombs 

Here's a typical day at work for the NOPD Crisis Intervention Unit:

A 20-year-old woman puts her 1-year-old and 5-month-old to sleep as she prepares to take her own life. A 48-year-old man, homeless and wracked by his mental illness, roams the streets naked, covered in feces. A 38-year-old man, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, barricades himself in his home after running through the streets with a knife, threatening to harm his neighbors. A young 14-year-old in utter despair and anger attempts to set his school on fire.

They are all ticking time bombs, poised to harm themselves or someone else.

Sadly, they are nothing new for those who work the streets daily in a fierce attempt to give hope to the hopeless. What's new, at least since Hurricane Katrina, is the lack of adequate resources for a safe and secure place for these individuals to live, a place that will monitor them and try to prevent their often-violent episodes, a place that will bring their minds back to a place of peace.

We have read recently of New Orleans' lack of mental health facilities and resources, and it is with utter amazement that this particular need -- and the needs of those who suffer from the medical disability of mental illness -- has been met with total neglect from some hospital administrators. As it stands today, more than 300 prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison suffer from debilitating mental illnesses. As a mental health professional, I would venture to say that had they received proper treatment, most of them would not have found themselves in jail. Family members will tell you that they are not bad people, they simply are too sick to understand right from wrong. With proper treatment, they are good people and good citizens of our community

Fortunately, a few mental health clinics have opened with gusto, often operating on shoestring budgets, with staff members working double-time. They are handling -- beautifully -- those who suffer from the "simpler" forms of mental illness. However, the bigger, more vexing problem lies in the more severe forms of mental illness that NOPD sees so often these days.

Imagine living through this post-storm nightmare, trying to rebuild, with the stifling symptoms of severe mental illness. Without strong emotional wellness, that experience is pushing otherwise "normal" people over the edge, and their symptoms of depression, mania and psychosis are putting themselves and the community at risk.

The Virginia Tech shootings made us all witnesses to the tragic effects of untreated mental illness. One person, who obviously suffered from psychotic behavior, forever changed an entire community. Lives were lost, and families were shattered. We also read recently of a woman, consumed by depression, who hanged herself and her four young children.

We can, perhaps, avoid situations like these with awareness and a true respect for the seriousness of our mental health crisis. We must begin by recognizing that this crisis is medical in nature and must be addressed by the entire medical community. NOPD can assist on the streets, of course. We can make a situation momentarily safer, but for our city's long-term security and wellness, we need adequate mental health treatment now, and that means facilities where people who exhibit unsafe behavior will have a safe and secure place to be brought before their illnesses claim more victims.

Apparently the governor, the City Council and the mayor have heard our pleas and have responded with demands that something be done. The response has been, "We are trying." We hear that the cavalry is on the way. We hear that a trailer will be at University Hospital in July to house 10 mental patients. We hear that LSU is going to place up to 40 psychiatric patients at DePaul Hospital sometime this summer. We hear that 10 "detox" beds will be opening at University Hospital sometime this summer.

We hear the promises, but will we see what has been promised?

Any professional who works the streets -- police officers, EMS specialists and crisis unit workers -- will tell you that the time bombs continue to tick. The eyes of those professionals have been opened wide for a long time. It's time for the rest of the community to open their eyes as well -- and provide sorely needed mental health services now ... before it's too late.

To obtain mental health services, call one of the following:

• Crisis Line: 211 or 1-800-749-2673

• Metropolitan Human Service District: 568-3130

• Red Cross Access to Care: 866-794-HOPE (financial reimbursement for mental health service)

Cecile W. Tebo, a licensed clinical social worker, is the NOPD Crisis Unit coordinator.

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