A Passionate Pioneer for Mental Health Care in New Orleans

A Passionate Pioneer for Mental Health Care in New Orleans

In October, Chelsea Thorton who suffered from bipolar schizophrenia, went off her medication and shot her three-year-old son and then drowned her four-year-old daughter in the bathtub. In November, 13-year-old Jeremiah Williams was being transported to Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville when he exited the car, ran across I-10 and died after being hit by a tow truck. These are just two preventable incidences caused by the egregious lack of local access to adequate mental health care in New Orleans. Two innocent children are dead and the highway incident, although awful, could have been even more catastrophic. How many more tragedies will have to happen before the Jindal administration admits their extensive cuts to health care are part of the problem and not the solution?

In the meantime, there are people like Cecile Tebo and her team who are trying to fill the gaps in mental health care and doing so successfully without any state or local funding. Tebo got her degree in social work and spent 20 years in the field of adoptions where she placed over 1,800 babies all over the state. She then joined NOPD’s Crisis Unit and spent the next 10 years responding to distress calls involving people having mental health crises, with the majority of them suffering from mental illness, including schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. She worked through Katrina, which was an especially trying time. “We saw a lot of suicides [afterwards] and, as time progressed, our chronically mentally ill started coming back to the city,” explained Tebo.

Tebo in her office at Exodus House
Tebo in her office at Exodus House

She went on to say that her biggest challenge wasn’t dealing with the people that returned but getting them the services they needed. “Care for the chronically mentally ill was virtually nonexistent…we did not have one mental health bed for two years post Katrina, so it was like an epidemic,” she said. “You could go into [the hospital] if you had a heart attack or any other medical concerns, but we would bring people in having a mental health crisis and it would just be total exasperation.”

During her tenure at the NOPD, Tebo lived a dual life. She has a wonderful home, devoted husband and three beautiful children, but when it came time to go to work, her home life felt like a million miles away. “I am very blessed…and you think that the rest of the city is like that but in the mornings I would put this uniform on and I would feel like I got into an elevator and went down, down, down and doors would open and all of a sudden I would be in the bowels of this city and just surrounded by multitudes of folks that live in our midst that are chronically mentally ill with chronic health care needs, chronic housing needs—none of which are really being addressed,” recalled Tebo.

As the years went on, the abysmal conditions and lack of in-patient mental health care for the people she rescued began to take a toll on Tebo and, after a decade, she resigned from her post. “I just woke up in the morning and felt very spiritually-led to move on. I felt it was time to really be part of the solution,” explained Tebo. “I was so frustrated by what I was seeing. Three hours after I’d dropped someone off at the hospital, promising them hope, I’d see them careening down the sidewalk and have to pick them up again. It was getting to be more than I could do. Before I left, I made a good point of saying that I wasn’t leaving the population, I was leaving the venue.”

Shortly afterwards, Tebo partnered with a close friend, Don Wilkerson, who relocated to New Orleans after Katrina from Philadelphia where he was involved in housing programs. Since March, Exodus house has expanded to two locations and has 80 residents, up from 20 at its inception. “Exodus House is really for folks who are rolling out of the hospital and need that next step to independence. I have some people here who used to kick my ass on the street and now they’re great!”

The apartments at Exodus House are very well done and the atmosphere is one of family and home, rather than institution. “The design is exactly what I had in mind. We have a nice big courtyard and we can open the gate for them. They can also leave voluntarily and we have a bus stop outside the gate, two corner stores, a park across the street with basketball and tennis, and we are six blocks down from NAMI,” explained Tebo. “NAMI has three times a week drop-in centers, socialization, games, artwork, so my folks can walk down there—it just works. Ideally we want to move everybody into independence, but I don’t want them too far away from this campus. because this is really where all our resources are.”

Tebo has a nurse that comes in twice a day and a volunteer cook who make meals with the residents. Residents can stay as long as they want at Exodus House and as a positive result, they are spending less time in mental hospitals and more time transitioning to independence within an extremely supportive environment.

The Exodus House team participates in the NAMI Walk
The Exodus House team participates in the NAMI Walk

At the moment, both campuses are at maximum capacity and although Tebo would like to expand, it will take some additional funding. “It breaks my heart to say we’re full right now. We have no operating expenses, so all the people here acting as staff are volunteers. For this to be sustainable, we’re going to have to get some money. I’m hoping that the city will kick in. At the moment [the city] doesn’t spend a dime on mental illness.”

It’s not just revenue that’s needed to help the mentally ill, but also a change in perception about mental illness, which is still currently seen as weakness or a choice. Additionally, there needs to be more attention to the process of proactive treatment for those with mental illness for both their own and other’s safety. Logically, this would lower incarceration levels as well.

In order to accomplish that, the mentally ill need representation. “We’re dealing with a population with no voice. If you were to do this with oncology or with the cardiac and diabetic populations, there would be huge groups affected by it and screaming, but these folks have no voice. They’re not well enough to advocate and this is happening across the country,” said Tebo, shaking her head. “What’s really sad is that the majority of those that are really acute are in jail. Our jail hosts the largest number of beds for the chronically mentally ill than any other hospital in the region. Why should we assume that the jail is the psychiatric hospital? Something is horribly wrong here.”

For now, Cecile Tebo is the voice for the mentally ill community here in New Orleans and hopefully, the state and local governments will start to listen. For more information about Exodus House, visit their website.