NEW ORLEANS — Like many other New Orleanians nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, John McCusker was experiencing the overwhelming stress of rebuilding his life.
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McCusker, a photographer who was part of The Times-Picayune’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning staff, was seen driving wildly through the city Tuesday, attracting the attention of police.
He eventually was arrested, but not before he was subdued with a Taser and an officer fired twice at his vehicle. During the melee, he begged police to kill him. One officer suffered minor injuries.
James Arey, commander of the police department’s SWAT negotiating team, said he can understand why McCusker seemingly snapped.
“There are all these things you’re trying to deal with in your own life — not enough insurance, family problems, your health problems,” said Arey, who already knew McCusker. “And then day in and day out, we get to see the wreckage of our city and people’s lives. It’s not easy to handle.”
Stress is keeping law enforcement officers in New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish busy these days, as they answer many more calls than before the storm for domestic abuse, drunkenness and fights. Involuntary commitments to mental hospitals are up from last year, and suicides in Orleans Parish have tripled since Katrina.
What’s more, psychologists say the city’s mental health environment is likely to get worse as the anniversary of the Aug. 29 storm approaches, sparking post-traumatic trauma in those who suffered losses.
McCusker remained in the city during the storm and continued to document the unprecedented destruction — except for a leave of absence this summer — while dealing with the loss of his house and other personal problems.
On Tuesday, it seems, the pressure of post-Katrina life finally got to him.
McCusker, a Times-Picayune photographer for about 20 years, was booked with aggravated battery and aggravated flight from an officer, both felonies, Arey said Thursday. He said McCusker was in a psychiatric hospital.
“He’s a great guy, a great photographer and we’re all pulling for him,” said newspaper managing editor Peter Kovacs.
McCusker is mentioned in a feature on the city’s travails in the current issue of American Journalism Review, saying he went back to work June 20 after a monthlong leave.
During the leave, the article says, McCusker spent much of his time sleeping off exhaustion and attending therapy sessions three times a week. He told the magazine he’d essentially become nonfunctional.
'Depth of horror'
“You have to understand the depth of the horror that the city was,” McCusker says in the article. “Tens of thousands of people on the freeways stranded. The children begging for food and water. The looting at the Wal-Mart. It was of biblical proportions.”
This marks an especially dangerous time for residents in areas still largely destroyed by Katrina, said Dr. Jessica Henderson Daniel, director of training and psychology at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
Daniel, in New Orleans for a convention of the American Psychological Association, said the storm’s anniversary will spark new feelings of loss and more emotional and physical stress.
“Sometimes the initial feelings of loss re-emerge, and sometimes they re-emerge with even greater strength than they had originally, Daniel said.
A key to survival, Daniel says, is to have a strategy to cope with the feelings.
Anticipating the emotions
“It’s important for people to anticipate a reaction and know that it’s normal and they’re not alone in their feelings,” she said.
Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the deputy New Orleans coroner who handles psychiatric cases, estimates the annual suicide rate was less than nine per 100,000 residents before the storm. It’s since increased to more than 26 per 100,000, he said.
Experts blame an epidemic of depression and post-traumatic stress that crosses all socio-economic lines.
Along with the general stress, there are more people with chronic mental illness not getting medication in the area now, Arey said. There’s also far less professional help for them.
The city’s crisis intervention unit at Charity Hospital — the primary center for such emergency treatment before the storm — has been closed since Katrina. That limits the options for police after they pick up someone in need of psychological help.
“There’s almost no psychiatric services in Orleans Parish now,” Arey said.
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