Sometimes the best way to fight crime is to capture the imagination of the public. Charles Figley, a Tulane University psychologist, family therapist and expert in traumatic stress, has a unique approach to reducing violence four years after Hurricane Katrina. It is a free, stress-reduction exercise focusing on “lessons learned” by storm survivors – including police and “street gangs,” says Figley, who’s also the chair of disaster mental health research at Tulane’s School of Social Work.
Street gangs? “Sure,” says Figley, a decorated Marine combat veteran of the Vietnam War. “If [gangs] are less ‘trigger happy’, they’re less prone to violence, and they’re more interested in enjoying life. These folks are mostly youth. The calmer that you can make them, the better it is [for society].”Reducing youth hostility toward police – and vice-versa – is a worthwhile goal, especially now.
“The cops are freaked out by young black teenagers, and the young black teenagers are freaked out by the cops,” Peter Scharf, a professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health, says the day after an New Orleans Police Department officer shot and killed a 15-year-old boy who allegedly pointed a rifle at police. New Orleans is on pace to be the nation’s leader in per-capita murders, for another year in a row.
Police Superintendent Warren Riley’s $236,000 “community policing” initiative, begun in July 2007, has flat-lined with the public amid an evidence room scandal and no fewer than three FBI probes of alleged police misconduct. Finally, with the clock ticking on Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration, NOPD is all but bankrupt of innovative ideas for reducing violent crime post-Katrina.
New Orleans isn’t entirely alone in that regard. Area law-enforcement officials in July reported increased levels of juvenile-involved crimes, domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse in the Hurricane Katrina-affected parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines. Such crime spikes are consistent with the storm’s long, psychological aftermath. “It’s a manifestation of Katrina-related stress,” Figley says. “Stress is caused by fear, fear of uncertainty, and memories of the bad times.”
Not everyone is adversely affected, of course. “If you are not bothered by Katrina, if you sleep well at night, don’t worry,” the professor continues. However, those still bothered by Katrina may need help. “You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder if you don’t do something about it,” he says. Figley, who moved here from Florida a year ago with his wife, says signs of a “shared-trauma community” are still evident in New Orleans, even in rebuilt areas and among the poor and affluent alike. “People are scared about safety,” he says. He expressed surprise at how Katrina still sharply divides neighborhoods, local universities and law enforcement.
“There are those who went through it and those who didn’t return after the storm,” he sighs. “There are those who talk about it too much [or] not enough.”
Another concern is the city’s “Katrina Generation.”
“There is a real drug problem with these kids that no one talks about, in private schools, public schools, universities, everywhere,” Figley says. Most crime is committed by teenagers to young adult males, ages 13 to 33, he says. Take young men, who aren’t well-socialized, with brains that aren’t fully developed. Combine high levels of testosterone, cortisol (a powerful natural hormone) and environmental stress, and you have a city with a “perfect storm” for crime, hostility and “road rage,” he says. A July 13 report to Congress by the General Accountability Office supports the professor’s concerns for children’s mental health in the metro area. In 2008, an estimated 187,000 children through age 17 lived in the Katrina-damaged metro area (Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes) and attended private and public schools, the GAO reported. “Many of these children experienced psychological trauma as a result of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and studies have shown that such trauma can have long-lasting behavioral, psychological and emotional effects on children,” the report states, adding that children who grow up in poverty and who are exposed to violence during or after a natural disaster are at risk for developing mental health disorders. Of 12,000 area children screened in January 2008 for mental health referrals, 16 to 21 percent had a family member who had been injured in Katrina. In addition, 13 to 18 percent of the children screened “had a family member who had been killed in the hurricane,” the report states. The recurring threat of more hurricanes does not help, the GAO notes.
Recovery from trauma – whether a disaster, a rape or combat requires “memory management,” Figley says. “What is being attempted here in New Orleans is an inefficient management of their Katrina experiences,” he says. “People still need to talk about the storm,” he says. “We need to learn from our experiences with Katrina: how to avoid crappy leadership, what our escape routes are … We can’t do that because we haven’t fully reviewed our story and milked it for lessons. What stops us from reviewing our experiences is fear.” Public ranting at government meetings, blogs and radio talk shows isn’t the kind of therapy that Figley has in mind.
“When you vent it doesn’t help you, and it agitates others,” the professor says, then adds a metaphor New Orleanians may appreciate: “[Venting] is an emotional dry heave.” Instead, Katrina “survivors” – defined as those who evacuated and those who stayed – are urged to create their own Katrina narratives, emphasizing lessons learned from the storm.
TELLING YOUR STORY
“Put it on YouTube or on video,” Figley says. Or write your Katrina stories in your private journal. “Start with the day before Katrina until the present: ‘Where did I stay? How long did I stay? What did I see on TV?’”
Answer the “five victim questions” of the traumatized, Figley says. They are: 1. What happened? 2. Why did it happen? 3. Why did I act the way I did? 4. Why have I acted the way I have since then? 5. Will I survive the next time? Have a strategy for calming yourself, Figley says, adding cortisol levels may rise with the revival of the traumatic memories. Take a walk, but don’t drink alcohol and don’t use drugs, he says. Use natural means for relaxing – other than eating. But the professor says not to try the Katrina story exercise, “if you’re not ready.” He adds, “If you know enough, fine.”
The psychologist, who has studied disasters for 30 years, says he’s “very optimistic” about the city’s recovery. An amateur photographer, Figley says he has taken 2,000 photographs since moving to New Orleans a year ago, including of second-line parades. “I didn’t take 2,000 pictures in Tallahassee and I lived there for 18 years!”
For more help visit CharlesFigley.com.