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A conversation with Florida Disaster Recovery Mental Health Coordinator Sara Newhouse

Lonely man in yellow raincoat walking along ocean breakwater during a storm
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An expert says Florida's disaster recovery efforts should include mental health care.

Hurricanes and tropical storms are disruptive to someone's property, education and job when they make landfall. But something we don't often consider is the short- and long-term effects on mental health.

Sara Newhouse is the Disaster Recovery Mental Health Coordinator for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. The position was created in 2019 by First Lady Casey DeSantis to address the damage from disasters beyond the physical. Newhouse took the role earlier this year.

Melissa Feito from the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network sat down with Newhouse to discuss her role, the mental health challenges people face after a disaster and how the Division is planning to aid in their recovery.

FPREN: Where did you get your start? Tell me about how you ended up in this position.

NEWHOUSE: I started off my career in social work. I really have always wanted to help people. So, after I finished my degree, I started working in first responder and victim advocacy. That entails after a crime occurs, helping people navigate the system. Through that role, I started building a relationship with my first responder peers. So, when I heard about this role, I thought it was great because it marries both of my passions, helping survivors of a disaster but also working on first responder care.

FPREN: Tell me a bit more about why this position was created within the Division.

NEWHOUSE: After Hurricane Michael, the Director (of FDEM) and the First Lady’s office saw the importance of the mental health piece to recovery. Once a disaster occurs, we are all about getting those communities recover back to as close to where they were before the disaster struck. The communities affected by Hurricane Michael has a very hard time recovery, people who lived in that communities, didn’t return. It’s all about recognizing that these disasters are traumatic and making people as close to whole as they were prior to the disaster.

FPREN: Let’s dig deeper into that. How might people’s mental health suffer after a disaster?

NEWHOUSE: If we know a storm is coming, we may experience a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear, maybe even anger. We don’t know what’s going on or what’s going to happen. And then after a disaster, we tend to experience those same things again. Because now we are left with all those unknowns, and our community is experiencing those same needs.

I give the example that after a storm, everyone loses their power and neighbors are outside cooking on their grills and helping each other take debris away. But then when you start going a month down the line, two months down the line, everyone starts getting back to normal… everyone but the affected community. The state or the country isn’t really talking about it anymore because they have moved onto the next thing. And now there are feelings of anxiety or depression that may set in. And that go on for years.

FPREN: In your experience, have you seen people suffer from trauma or stress after a disaster? If you have, please tell me some of those stories.

NEWHOUSE: I have been in the Tallahassee community my whole life. Going back to Hurricane Michael, we had a lot of displaced residents come here, and I could see in my work as a victim advocate, people who were suffering because of that storm, and it was impacting their daily lives.

Families that had to move over here were not finding jobs, or their relationships started to suffer. You can see an uptick in intimate partner violence or substance abuse. For people already managing a mental health condition, they might lose their outlets like community groups they might go to or they may lose access to their prescriptions.


FPREN: You have the victims of a severe weather event, but you also have those like first responders whose job it is to go in and get people out of trouble. How about the toll on the mental health of first responders?

NEWHOUSE: First responders go into the unknown on a daily basis. But disasters take that to another level. Let’s say a storm is coming to your area, first responders may be going from eight to 12-hour shifts. If they work during the day, they may have to work at night. And their families may have to prepare on their own. There is a first responder resiliency grant through the Department of Children and Families, so throughout the state there are organizations making mental health services more accessible.

FPREN: As we discussed, in the immediate aftermath there may be a lot of support, but in the ongoing months or years, it can go away. What do we see happening in the long term?

NEWHOUSE: If people do not have the ability to take care of themselves after a disaster, that short-term, or “acute” stress can turn into post-traumatic stress. Which again, can affect their job, their relationships, and have a negative effect on the community. Someone may begin to withdraw from society, they may have damaged their close relationships and lose the ability to help themselves. If someone is suffering from depression after a storm, for example, they may not be able to exert the energy to call their insurance company, or work with FEMA, or their case manager, stalling their own recovery.

FPREN: What resources are available to someone whose mental health starts to suffer?

NEWHOUSE: SAMHSA is a federal organization that has a disaster distress line. The number is 1–800–985–5990. It’s a 24/7 number people can call or text to get resources. Another thing to know is that if it is a federally declared disaster, FEMA works with the Department of Children and Families to install a crisis counseling program for disaster survivors. Your local 211 line can also connect you to important services. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is geared towards suicide, but they will route you to whatever you need to get help.

FPREN: Mental health isn’t the first thing we typically think of when it comes to disaster recovery. Is this a newer conversation amongst emergency managers? Or is this something they have considered for a long time?

NEWHOUSE: After the pandemic, I think we are doing a better job at labeling it for what it is. And I kind of see my role in this too be that mental health check. We are all about keeping people safe, and getting people on the move, but what if we can just put a thought of mental health to it.

My role is to collaborate with what we already have but make everyone more forward thinking on the mental health aspect. When a disaster occurs, I will be deployed to that community, and kind of the liaison between that community and the state. “All disasters are local” is something we like to say in emergency management. I will assess what their local resources are to handle their mental health needs. And then, I’ll advocate to the state what we can bring down for them.

FPREN: What else should people know before a disaster hits?

NEWHOUSE: One of the things I would like to stress is that preparing for the unknown means being mentally healthy in your everyday life. If you go into a situation very stressed, you are not going to be well-equipped to handle that. Take time to nurture yourself and your hobbies. When things aren’t going right, who are you going to call? Your therapist, your best friend, your mom or dad? Making a hurricane plan will also eliminate some anxiety ahead of a storm instead of not knowing what to do.

Copyright 2022 Storm Center.

Melissa Feito