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New Orleans endures rise in suicides

Signs of despair are pervasive

Mental health professionals say this city appears to be experiencing a sharp increase in suicides in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and interviews and statistics suggest that the rate is now double or more the national and local averages.

At least seven people have killed themselves in the four months since the storm, officials say, here in a city whose population is now no more than 75,000 to 100,000. That compares with a national rate of 11 suicides per 100,000 for all of 2002, and a rate in New Orleans of about nine per 100,000 for all of 2004. There is broad agreement that the problem is likely to get worse.

Stevenson Palfi, 53, a well-known local filmmaker, was apparently the latest to take his own life. Palfi's house had taken 8 feet of water, and he was in despair over losing years of files and photographs, a computer -- in fact, all the contents of his office.

The aftermath of the storm pushed him "right off the cliff emotionally," said a friend, Mary Katherine Aldin.

Palfi shot himself in the early hours of Dec. 14, Aldin said.

The signs of despair are pervasive here: A woman, having returned to see her flooded-out house for the first time, runs screaming down Mirabeau Avenue in the Gentilly neighborhood, where police find her babbling uncontrollably; in a Bourbon Street nightclub, a man shoots himself, even as dancers sway to the music; from half-ruined houses, the police retrieve homeowners, weeping and distraught; psychiatrists report that previously stable patients are now preoccupied with death and suicide.

"I would call the scope of this disaster, the scale of mental health problems, unprecedented," said Charles Curie, the mental health administrator at the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Officials say that among those who have killed themselves was Dr. James Kent Treadway, a pediatrician who was a fixture in the Uptown neighborhood. Treadway, 58, committed suicide in his badly damaged house on Nov. 16.

Officials have also reported suicides among evacuees in cities where large numbers of them have settled.

And in addition to those who have killed themselves here, about two dozen have tried to do so, a rate that is most likely also far higher than normal, officials say.

Jeff Wellborn, administrator of the police department's mobile mental health squad, said members of his unit were being called in frequently when a homeowner, witnessing the extent of losses for the first time, broke down.

"These are not the same people we dealt with before the storm," he said. "They had no mental health history. We are seeing almost exclusively new patients."

Health professionals confronting this tide of despondency view it as one more sign that New Orleans, with its miles of ruined neighborhoods, moribund downtown and enclaves of semi-normality, is far from recovered. Nobody here can escape the persistent evidence of the city's devastation.

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