SUNY New Paltz’s Institute for Disaster Mental Health (IDMH) sent staff to Puerto Rico last month to aid in disaster relief and trauma education in the wake of Hurricane Maria and the recent earthquakes.
Already dealing with the after effects of Hurricane Maria, which occured in the fall of 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by numerous earthquakes from Dec. 28, 2019 to the early weeks of January 2020. Aftershocks continue to hit the island.
According to a report by the United States Geological Survey, aftershocks of the 6.4 magnitude earthquake on Jan. 7 “will persist for years to decades, although with decreasing frequency, and earthquakes will likely be felt on a daily basis for up to several months.”
The IDMH “seeks to address the diversity of disaster mental health demands in the region, state, nation, and the global community so that all those impacted by disaster and trauma have access to the mental health support they need.”
With this repeated disaster, staff from the IDMH traveled to Puerto Rico to educate professionals on the psychological impact of traumatic events on children, an important step in helping to manage the after effects of natural disasters.
“When children are struggling to manage their trauma symptoms, they often have difficulty concentrating in the classroom,” said Amy Nitza, director of the IDMH. “This disruption in their learning can create a negative cascade in their academic performance over time. Helping adults understand specific trauma reactions and how they can support children effectively can help reduce some of these negative outcomes.”
While the IDMH has previously offered aid to Puerto Rico in other forms such as building houses in 2018 after the hurricane, they decided to focus on mental health education for this trip.
“The first step of any scary situation, in general, not only for disasters, is to understand it in order to decrease the level of anxiety, and comprehension also helps to make informed choices and to answer with appropriate actions,” said Cassandre Surinon, special programs manager for IDMH. “In other words, it helps people to regain control over the situation. This is our philosophy at IDMH, we want people to know what they are dealing with and then give them some possible guidelines to allow them to build actions in their community affected by natural disasters.”
Surinon explained that this situation is unique because there have been multiple natural disasters, which leads to repeated trauma for the residents of Puerto Rico. In some ways, the earthquakes have been more damaging to their mental health because the earthquakes and aftershocks are mostly unpredictable and will be happening for much longer than the hurricane in 2017.
The IDMH was able to send staff to Puerto Rico thanks to a grant by UNICEF USA, and they aim to “implement a sustainable Mental Health Support program in schools of the Puerto Rico Department of Education and in Boys and Girls Clubs in Puerto Rico,” according to Surinon.
There are currently three more scheduled trips to Puerto Rico for this semester: the next in late February, another in March and the last one in April.