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Cultural barriers may hinder counseling efforts

Armies of mental health professionals are trying to counsel the thousands of evacuees who have been displaced and disoriented by Hurricane Katrina, but some say cultural, social, and racial barriers could hinder the effort.

"These are people who come from different racial backgrounds and different social classes. They are going to have to work really hard to bridge that gap," says Denver psychologist Robert Atwell, president of the Association of Black Psychologists.

Most who fled hurricane-ravaged hometowns are black, including almost 70 percent of New Orleans' population. But most mental health workers are white; blacks make up less than 5 percent in most mental health fields, says the federal Center for Mental Health Statistics.

Because evacuees might be haunted by gruesome images and stark recollections, experts say they are at risk for a host of short- and long-term problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

But Atwell says there's a stigma in the black community about seeking mental health assistance, and mistrust of government makes counseling more challenging.