Mental health stressors still loom for Puerto Ricans after Maria


Community outreach

Nydia M. Cappas, PsyD, director of the Primary Care Psychology Program, told us that the outreach teams – consisting of doctors or other medical professionals, social workers, and psychologists, were being sent out to communities once a week. They visited homes for the elderly, orphans’ homes, and children in foster care, as well as individual patients. A similar service was provided by Vargas Medicine (VARMED) in the San Juan area.

Team members found that many people were suffering symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, even people who did not have prior psychiatric symptoms. They were having flashbacks and nightmares. Those flashbacks and nightmares were being triggered by clouds, by rain, by supplies beginning to run out.

Dr. Judith R. Milner

Dr. Judith R. Milner

Some people were avoiding taking their medications and socializing with others, and were experiencing anhedonia. People were experiencing affect dyscontrol, anger, irritability, impatience, intolerance.

Another trend we observed is that terrain changes prompted by Maria triggered PTSD symptoms among many veterans. The defoliated trees and brown earth were causing them to have flashbacks to the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq. Children were showing regressive behaviors, loss of developmental milestones, and symptoms of separation anxiety such as wanting to sleep with their parents. In severe cases, they were having psychotic symptoms and auditory hallucinations. The children were grieving the loss of their homes, toys, pets, and family members, in some cases. The teams were able to provide psychological first aid, help people fill out their forms for Federal Emergency Management Agency relief, and distribute medical supplies, including medications, food, toiletries, and other household goods.

Puerto Rico’s future

Two and a half months after Maria, we learned from our students that things gradually had begun to improve. For example, the public schools had just reopened, and that change was expected to have a stabilizing effect on the children. We also learned that, of the 80 shelters that had been set up housing about 12,500 people, 40 shelters had closed. The five medical shelters that had been set up and funded by FEMA also were in the process of closing, and private donations were beginning to slow down. People were slowly returning to their tarped or otherwise repaired homes, albeit all too often without power.

During the storm, nearly 500,000* homes were destroyed. FEMA offered to airlift about 3,000 people who had no home 2 months past Maria to the U.S. mainland – either Florida or New York.

According to our students, people living in the mountains, mainly coffee growers and retired people and comprising about one-third of the population, remain in acute crisis. Part of the challenge is being able to reach this population: Some roads are still impassable, and supplies – such as drinking water – can be delivered only by helicopter. Despite current conditions, FEMA reportedly has announced that it would end emergency operations on the island.

Our team is currently involved in applying for grant funding that will enable us to return to provide additional training to physicians’ and teachers’ groups. Over the course of the next year, we would like to make six trips to Puerto Rico and focus each trip on a different region and different group of professionals so that the entire island has resources. In addition, we will offer follow-up consultations to professionals we trained previously. The regions to be trained would be San Juan, Ponce, Utuado, Mayagüez, Guayama, and a sixth to be determined upon need. We also would like to address the needs of any ongoing relief workers so that they will be more effective in their ongoing role. Meanwhile, financial assistance from the mainland remains uneven.

Many months after Maria (and Irma), the physical and mental health needs of the Puerto Rican people remain great. However, as mental health professionals, we have the tools to help them move forward.

Judith R. Milner, MD, MEd, SpecEd, is a general, child, and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice in Everett, Wash. She has traveled with various groups over the years in an effort to alleviate some of the suffering caused by war and natural disaster. Her predominant association has been with the International Center for Psychosocial Trauma. She also has worked with Step Up Rwanda Women and Pygmy Survival Alliance, as well as on the Committee for Women at the American Psychiatric Association and the Consumer Issues Committee and Membership Committee for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

*Correction, 2/12/2018: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of homes reportedly destroyed by Hurricane Maria.

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