Skip to content

Director’s Update: NIMH Staff Provide Mental Health Care to the Gulf Coast Region

In the last months of summer, two devastating hurricanes destroyed the lives, homes, and livelihoods of millions of Americans in the southern Gulf Coast region. The aftermath of those storms continues to unfold. But in the first few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, and later Hurricane Rita, staff from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) traveled to the region to provide immediate mental health treatment and prevention services to storm survivors and emergency response staff serving affected communities. In total, NIMH sent 26 scientists, clinicians, nurses, and social workers. In addition to the staff members who traveled to the region, scores more stayed in offices and labs in Bethesda and pitched in to maintain the work of the institute while our colleagues were deployed.

"We usually work to achieve our mission—to reduce the burden of mental illness and behavioral disorders—through research," said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. "When we do it in a hands-on way, it's remarkable. I am so proud of our talented staff who do so much so well and who so quickly responded to the needs of Americans who survived these hurricanes."

In mid-November 2005, NIMH came together to thank formally the staff who served in the Gulf Coast region—often under very difficult conditions. All volunteers received a personal letter from NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, thanking them for their commitment to the public's health, especially in moments of tragedy and need. The personal initiative, dedication, and compassion exhibited by these NIMH staff members were essential to ensure that communities across the region were cared for, setting a standard of excellence for public service. In almost every case, upon arrival to their posts, staff members assigned to one job discovered and took on another and more urgent task. The volunteers reported feeling helpful in ways they could not have predicted.

Some of the volunteers shared their experiences at the November NIMH gathering. Along with a small cohort of colleagues stationed on cruise ships docked in the New Orleans harbor, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg (Unit for Systems Neuroscience in Psychiatry, GCAP program)and Joe Callicott (Chief, Unit on Functional MRI Genes, Cognition and Psychosis Program) were bunkmates and collaborators providing care to city police and fire squads. The ships were home not only to the health care staff, but also to the officers and their families. The team treated acute stress responses in these men and women, allowing them to continue to perform vital services to the city. When the second hurricane struck, police and fire units were required to stay in the city while the cruise ships—carrying their families, spouses and children of New Orleans' civil servants, and NIMH staff people—were sent out to sea to wait out the storm.

Francois Lalonde, of the NIMH Division of Intramural Research Program's (DIRP) Geriatric Psychiatry Branch, was detailed through the public health commissioned corps to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) station where he evaluated members of the Southern National Guard who were about to be deployed to Kuwait. The soldiers were given the option of staying home to assist in the cleanup; A little more than half stayed. Lalonde and a team of ten others evaluated those who decided to go, ensuring they were psychologically prepared for the task. He and his team also provided support and psychological services to employees working in community mental health clinics, helping those staff maintain their mental health in order to continue service for the patients and clients of the centers.

Ben Vitiello (DSIR, Child and Adolescent Treatment and Preventive Intervention Research Branch) was stationed in a rural area of Mississippi between Jackson and North Carolina in a small facility inland, away from the reach of the hurricane. There he provided treatment assessment and evaluation for children and adolescents who were evacuated from the Mississippi gulf area. Most of the children had been separated from their parents and families during the evacuation and some needed to be stabilized as a result of this trauma.

In the midst of such chaos and the urgency to treat the survivors, volunteers were also reminded to tend to their own mental health needs. Mitchell Kling (DIRP, Clinical Neuroendocrinology Branch) worked with others in Gulfport where he said the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which oversaw the volunteers, was diligent about not letting volunteers work too many hours a day.

Each staff member who volunteered provided excellent care and returned with rich stories and experiences. Below are the names of the NIMH staff who traveled to serve survivors of the Katrina and Rita storms.

Staff photo of NIMH volunteers.


Seated 1st row, left to right

Ernest Marquez, Ph.D.; Robert Mays, Ph.D.; Maryland Pao, M.D.; Kathy Gallardo, M.D., Ph.D.; Merry Danaceau, R.N., M.S.N.; Michelle Feige, M.S.W.; Katherine Whorton, LCSW-C

2nd row, left to right

Allan Mirsky, Ph.D.; Jaskaran Singh, M.D.; Paul Carlson, M.D.; Francois Lalonde, Ph.D.; Mark Ritter, M.D.; Mayada Akil, M.D.; Ellen Leibenluft, M.D.

3rd row, left to right

David Smith; Stefano Marenco, M.D.; Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, M.D.; Joseph Callicott, M.D.; Michael Pagliaro, R.N.; Mitchell Kling, M.D.; Carol Kinslow, M.S.W.; Benedetto Vitiello, M.D.; Timothy J. Tosten, M.P.A.; Thomas R. Insel, M.D.

Not pictured: Paul Grant, M.D.; Wayne Fenton, M.D.; Jean Murphy, R.N., M.S.N.; Pamela Shell, R.N.; Joan Williams, R.N.

Timothy J. Tosten, M.P.A., and David R. Smith in the Director's office in the NIMH Division of Intramural Research Programs provided support to these travelers, enabling them to serve in this important way.

For more information about coping with Hurricane's Katrina and Rita, visit, here.