Mental Health and Severe Storms: An Attorney’s Perspective – WUFT | Directory Mayhem

Hurricanes and tropical storms impact property, education and jobs when they make landfall. What we don’t often consider, however, is the short- and long-term impact of storms on mental health. Sara Newhouse is the Disaster Mental Health Coordinator for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. The post was created by First Lady in 2019 Casey DeSantis to address the damage from disasters beyond the physical. Newhouse took on the role earlier this year. Florida Public Radio Emergency Network’s Melissa Feito sat down with Newhouse to talk about her role, the mental health challenges people face after a disaster, and the division’s plans to help with their recovery.

FPREN: where did you start Tell me how you ended up in this position.
NEW HOUSE: I started my career in social work. I’ve really always wanted to help people. After graduating, I began working in first responder and victim advocacy. This means that after a crime, people are helped to find their way around the system. Through this role, I began to develop a relationship with my fellow first responders. When I heard about this role I thought it was great because it combines my two passions of helping disaster survivors and also working in first responder care.

FPREN: Tell me a little more about why this position was created within the department.
NEW HOUSE: After Hurricane Michael, the Director (of FDEM) and the Office of the First Lady saw the importance of mental health in recovery. Once a disaster strikes, our primary concern is to restore these communities as much as possible to where they were before the disaster. Communities affected by Hurricane Michael have had a very difficult time recovering. People who lived in these communities did not return. It’s about recognizing that these disasters are traumatic and bringing people back to being as close as they were before the disaster.

FPREN: Let’s examine that more closely. How can people’s mental health suffer after a disaster?
NEW HOUSE: When we know a storm is coming, we can experience a lot of fear, a lot of fear, and maybe even anger. We don’t know what’s going on or what’s going to happen. And after a disaster, we tend to experience the same things again. Because now we are left with all these unknowns and our community has the same needs. I give the example that after a storm everyone loses their power and the neighbors cook outside on their grills and help each other clear debris. But then when you start walking a month later, two months later, everyone starts going back to normal…everyone but the affected community. The state or country doesn’t really talk about it anymore because they’ve moved on to the next thing. And now feelings of anxiety or depression can set in. And that can take years.

FPREN: In your experience, have you seen people suffer from trauma or stress after a disaster? If yes, please tell me some of these stories.
NEW HOUSE: I have been in the community of Tallahassee my entire life. Coming back to Hurricane Michael, we had a lot of displaced people coming here and I could see in my work as a victim advocate that people were suffering from this storm and it was affecting their daily lives. Families who had to move here could not find work or their relationships began to suffer. You may see an increase in intimate partner violence or substance abuse. People who are already coping with mental illness may lose outlets like community groups they may 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. What about the mental health burden of first responders?
NEW HOUSE: First responders venture into the unknown every day. But disasters take that to another level. Assuming a storm hits your area, first responders might switch from 8-hour to 12-hour shifts. If they work during the day, they may have to work at night. And their families may have to prepare themselves. There is a resilience grant for first responders through the Department of Children and Families, so there are organizations across the state that facilitate access to mental health services.

FPREN: As we discussed, there may be a lot of support immediately afterwards, but it may disappear in the months or years that follow. What do we see in the long term?
NEW HOUSE: When people are unable to take care of themselves after a disaster, this short-term or “acute” stress can turn into post-traumatic stress. Which, in turn, can affect their work and relationships, and negatively impact the community. One can begin to withdraw from society; They may have damaged their close relationships and lost the ability to help themselves. For example, if someone is suffering from depression after a storm, they may not have the energy to call their insurance company or work with FEMA or their case manager, delaying their own recovery.

FPREN: What resources are available to someone whose mental health is beginning to suffer?
NEW HOUSE: SAMHSA is a federal organization that has a disaster emergency number. The number is 1-800-985-5990. It’s a 24/7 number that people can call or text to get resources. Another thing to know is that when a federally declared disaster occurs, FEMA works with the Department of Children and Families to establish 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 direct you to everything 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 recent conversation among emergency managers? Or have you thought about it for a long time?
NEW HOUSE: After the pandemic, I think we’re doing a better job of calling it what it is. And I also see my role as mental health screening. We’re all about keeping people safe and getting people moving, but what if we could just give mental health a thought? My role is to work with what we already have, but to get everyone to think more forward-looking when it comes to mental health. When a disaster strikes, I’m assigned to that community and I’m sort of the liaison between that community and the state. “All disasters are local” is what we like to say in emergency management. I will assess what their local resources are to manage their mental health needs. And then I’ll lobby the state on their behalf, whatever we can bring down.

FPREN: What else should people know before a disaster strikes?
NEW HOUSE: One of the things I want to emphasize is that preparing for the unknown means being sane in everyday life. If you find yourself in a very stressful situation, you will not be well equipped to deal with it. Take time for yourself and your hobbies. When things don’t go right, who do you call? Your therapist, your best friend, your mother or father? Creating a hurricane plan will also eliminate some fears of a storm coming up rather than not knowing what to do.

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