More than a dozen mental health experts filled city council chambers Thursday for a discussion led by Councilman Joe Giarusso, whose father committed suicide 10 years ago.
Opening the meeting, Giarroso considered why his father, a successful attorney and former New Orleans commissioner, chose to end his life.
“For survivors, the bigger issue is ‘why,’” Giarrusso said. “There is absolutely no good answer.”
All 64 dioceses are considered in Louisiana “Health Provider Shortage Areas” or HPSAfor mental health care. The HPSA is a federal classification meaning there are one or fewer mental health providers for every 30,000 people.
About 18% of adults in Louisiana reported having poor mental health days about half the time in 2020, According to the US health classifications. Nationally, the proportion is about 13%.
Dr. Jennifer Avigno, director of the city’s Department of Health, provided startling statistics illustrating New Orleans’ mental health challenges.
- Before the pandemic, about 1 in 5 adults in New Orleans was experiencing recurring psychological distress.
- Ten percent of adults in New Orleans have a substance use disorder.
- More than 17,000 adults and teens have suicidal thoughts.
- Suicide is the leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 14 years.
- The overdose rate among blacks in the city has tripled in the past two years.
The pandemic has exacerbated the effects of mental illness on a city long reeling from the traumas of natural disasters, high poverty rates, and the constant drumbeat of violence.
There may have been signs
“I was giving this speech and saying there are no signs,” Giarroso said. “But there may have been signs.”
Giarrusso said his father, who is usually in the life of the party, did not want to celebrate his 60th birthday. He became more withdrawn and calm, and his sleeping habits worsened. A religious man, he stopped going to church for two months. He became afraid to go out in public.
In an emotional letter, Giarrusso also said that he believed his father’s profession contributed to the emotional and mental state that led to his death, along with being in his father’s shadow and being seen as a larger-than-life figure to ignore. of negative feelings.
“My father had more of an artist’s soul than a lawyer and litigator,” Giarrusso said. “It’s hard, when you’re a sensitive person, to always be in conflict with others.”
Giarusso’s father also watched his father deteriorate from Alzheimer’s disease before he died and received a diagnosis of diabetes.
“I think this started with playing some mind games: ‘If I lose my sight, I lose my mind, I lose my ability, who am I?'” said Giarrusso. ”
He said the note his father left did not provide any answers.
Other board members offered their own views on mental health.
Council member J.P. Muriel described the older Giarrusso as one of the “happiest people” he had ever met. Knowing this, Morell said it shows how many people struggle in silence.
“In the black community especially, vulnerability is a stigma,” said Muriel, Giarusso’s cousin by marriage. “When you talk about mental health, the availability of services and the dire need to destigmatize mental health needs, there is a lot that we need to do as a city to right this fatal mistake in the public consciousness – it is okay to hurt and it is okay to show vulnerability.”
City Council President Helena Moreno jumped in. “On the Mexican side of my family, it’s a lot about ‘sucking it up’.” And maybe that’s part of what made me who I am. But it can also be really, really tough.”
Moreno described having an anxiety attack while sitting at the anchor table during her career as a television news reporter.
“All that stress, all without taking care of my mental health, and all that worry and hold on, eventually started to have physical effects,” Moreno said.
Lavondra Dobbs, CEO of Via Link, which contracts with the state to provide the service, said crisis calls to the new 988 number that recently replaced the suicide hotline have increased 30% recently. The line receives 450 calls per week routed from area codes 504, 225, and 985, and each caller receives a follow-up call from employees.
Ten years later, the Giarrusso family is still feeling the hole left behind. The council member spoke of his father’s “glamor” that he now sees in his children.
“When you see your parents reflect on your children, you wish they were still there,” he said, after a long pause.