North Florida Grapples With An Emerging, Hurricane-Induced Mental Health Crisis
Many Hurricane Michael victims are still feeling the effects of the storm. It not only caused physical damage to the area, but has left scars on the hearts and minds of survivors.
Smiling To Hide The Pain
In Panama City, an abandoned shopping plaza lies in ruins, its plaster façade on the ground. The metro PCS store at the end of it, is crumpled, as if a bulldozer ran into it. Next door is a small key-making shop. Inside is Judy Woodruff – the bookkeeper at Panhandle key and safe.
“Even though people want to act like [they're] '850 Strong' and this, that and the other. But there’s
"People want to act like they're '850 Strong'...but there's probably not too many of us that don't cry every day because of what has happened," -Judy Woodruff, Panama City resident
probably not too many of us that don’t cry every day because of what has happened," she says. "When you live in a place that’s beautiful as it is, and then wake up to a place that looks like it’s been bombed, it's really really, sad when [there are] no trees and most buildings are down."
In the heart of Panama City homes, businesses and churches damaged by the storm are still waiting on repairs. That’s not the only damage the storm caused.
“We’ve seen a lot of anxiety that sort of thing and but we also depression, PTSD," says Mike Barbour, the Assistant Administrator at the Emerald Coast Behavioral Hospital in Panama City. It recently reopened, and in the short time it's been operational, Barbour says he's treated active military servicemen and women, and other adults trying to cope in the aftermath of the storm.
“We have only one wing renovated right now that’s safe to admit patients and that is split between military patients and active treatment people who are adults the people who need active treatment for their issues”, he says.
Children Struggle To Cope
"When he escalates he's completely out of control, emotionally and physically. He made his second threat of self-harm." -Bay Superintendent Bill Husfelt reads a letter from a teacher
Michael's aftermath has been particularly hard on children as well. Bay County School Superintendent Bill Husfelt recently talked about the issue before the State Board of Education. He’s had to refer some 700 children for mental health services since schools reopened. Some ended up being involuntarily committed.
“We’ve had 70 Baker Acts since we have reopened November 5th," he told the board, "35 [happened] since February 25th, 62 since Christmas Break."
According to the National Institute of Health, as many as 43% of children affected by a natural disaster will experience post-traumatic stress disorder and many suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns. Husfelt read a letter written by a teacher about a six-year-old she had to refer for services.
"When he escalates he’s completely out of control, emotionally and physically. He made his second threat of self-harm. When the counselor arrived, the life management center was full and not taking patients. The parents were told they could take him to Gulf Coast [Regional Hospital's] emergency room, and if not, to Tallahassee or Pensacola."
Husfelt says more counselors are needed but the school system is having trouble getting them because there is nowhere for anyone to live. Hurricane Michael left more than 10,000 people in Bay County alone, homeless. Rental prices have increased dramatically. Meanwhile, Barbour says the Emerald Coast Behavioral hospital isn’t able to care for children right now.
“Prior to the storm we treated children from age four to 17. Right now, that unit is the most damaged in our
hospital and it will be late June if we’re lucky to get that open again. So right now we can’t treat kids," he says. "We’re advising people to either go outpatient with us for the adolescence or to go to Life Management or to the hospitals with their kids."
Back at the key shop, Judy Woodruff says the new reality of living among devastation is painful.
“It’s been very, very hard and bad and heartbreaking," she says on life after the storm.
May is Mental Health Awareness month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline can be reached Monday through Friday at 1-800-950-6264 from 10 a.m. until 6 in the evening. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or know someone who is, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with a trained crisis counselor.