When U.S. Public Health Service Commander Dennis Slate, PsyD, arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 7, his first job was to assess the state of the city's mental health services.
What we found was that there was no mental health structure," he says. "The New Orleans health department had about three of its [usual] 300 staff members."
So Slate and his colleagues--including social workers, nurses and other psychologists--began to put temporary mental health services into place. In his regular job as a public health service officer, Slate provides psychological services to illegal immigrants who are being held at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Houston--but he is also dispatched to disaster sites when needed. In New Orleans, his job was to see to the needs of the police, firefighters and military personnel who were performing rescue missions and trying to keeping order in the flooded city.
"Our days were spent meeting with various officials and assessing what they needed," Slate says. "Then in the evening we'd do crisis counseling."
He and his colleagues worked individually with rescue workers, and set up group classes to teach them how to handle stress.
And there were many stressors: "Some of the people we worked with were combat vets," Slate says. "They'd just come back from Iraq, and now they were seeing bodies on the streets in New Orleans."
Others, particularly police officers and firefighters, were New Orleanians themselves and had lost their own homes or were separated from their own families. "You have people who'd lost everything they owned, and they were still doing their jobs," Slate says.
After the Carnival cruise ship Ecstasy arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 11 to house these first responders, Slate and his team set up a mental health clinic on board. By the time he left on Sept. 21, he says, "We had set up a full range of mental health services."