Bracing for the Mental Health Impact of Hurricane Maria

Kritzia Basmeson helps her daughters with homework after school. (Photo: ideastream)
Kritzia Basmeson helps her daughters with homework after school. (Photo: ideastream)
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At a hair salon on the west side of Cleveland, Kritzia Basmeson is finishing her shift, packing away brushes and curling irons before going to pick up her two daughters from school. She just arrived in Cleveland from Puerto Rico a few weeks ago, one of the thousands of people being resettled in Northeast Ohio after Hurricane Maria.

For Basmeson, the memories of the storm are still vivid.

"Around 4 o’clock in the morning, we felt the house shaking and everything," Basmeson said. "And then you can hear the trees, like, cracking. And the neighbor’s house lost the roof, so the roof fell behind our house… everything was filled with water."

Basmeson was diagnosed with anxiety as a teenager. Since the hurricane, she’s been experiencing symptoms again.

"I had like, two panic attacks with the hurricane on those days, which I didn’t have that for almost three years before that," Basmeson said. "You know, I couldn’t rest for nothing, for nothing on the planet. I was like, I can’t do this insomnia again."

Several months after the hurricane, national officials are concerned of a growing ‘mental health crisis’ among Puerto Ricans, with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety and depression on the rise. And people who had pre-existing mental health conditions may be even more vulnerable, says Dr. Debra Wentz, executive director of the New Jersey Mental Health Institute.

"The immediate impact of a hurricane exacerbates mental illnesses that have existed prior to the storm," said Wentz. "So while it’s normal for victims to feel a range of emotions such as irritability, and night terrors, depression, hopelessness and anxiety, the challenge is to keep these feelings from keeping root and having a long-term impact on people’s lives."

At El Centro in Lorain, a social service organization that provides support to the Latino community in Lorain, a group of families are taking an English class. This is where many Puerto Ricans will come upon arrival to find help adjusting to their new lives in Northeast Ohio.

El Centro is already receiving some 8-9 families from Puerto Rico every day, and is expecting a huge rush of people being resettled in the coming months. Many of those require mental health help, says Thelma Cruz, a social worker and mental health navigator at El Centro.

"We’ve many times had families come in and break down crying because it’s very difficult when they start talking about the situation in Puerto Rico," said Cruz. "They’re happy to be alive, they’re happy to be here, but it’s still… it’s a big loss, it’s a big traumatic event in their lives."

Local agencies are bracing to meet the growing mental health crisis – first by getting people who suffer from more serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia back on medications… because most people were unable to get their prescription drugs on the island after the hurricane.

"It’s kind of a race against time trying to hurry up and get them back on their medication, because some of these medications are serious medications that kids or families or adults have to be on," Cruz said.

Directing people into counseling with a bilingual therapist or an interpreter is also a priority, says Ramonita Vargas, executive director of the Spanish American Committee in Cleveland.

"They’re coming to Cleveland, a place that they don’t know… They need counseling, they need some help, they need follow-up every 30 days or 60 days," Vargas said. "Because this isn’t going to go away overnight."

After picking her kids up from school, Kritzia Basmeson is back at the hair salon helping them with homework. For Basmeson, the first steps to coping with her increased anxiety is getting back to a normal routine… and relying on her inner strength.

"My mind is focusing to get my life back," said Basmeson. "You know I gotta go to work, I gotta do this, I gotta do that, take care of the kids. So I try to be positive as much as I can. That’s the key to not being depressed."

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