When thunderstorms passed through the
They would run to their teachers in tears, fearing the storm might return, recalled
"They were asking if the water will still work, will their parents be able to pick them up and where will they be able to go when their home blows away," she said. "The weather toll itself was creating and bringing back the trauma."
As another hurricane season begins, the devastation and the slow pace of recovery are instilling a sense of despair among many of the region's residents who are still struggling to find housing or fulfill basic needs. Many are living in tents or campers outside ruined homes while they wait for contractors or for state or federal assistance.
The strain is starting to show among many of the
Hundreds of students have been evaluated for symptoms of mental distress and referred for further care as officials have started more closely tracking students' mental health needs. According to a survey done through the school district in the spring, more than a third of the district's roughly 30,000 students and staff likely have clinical symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD.
The school district has also reported a handful of suicides of students' relatives since classes resumed, and more than a hundred students have been involuntarily examined under the Baker Act just through the school system, some as young as 6.
Fewer mental health providers
But already strained mental health services in the
As students and their families have struggled, their distress has emerged in painful ways. In one extreme case, three girls made a suicide pact, brought razor blades to school, then tried to cut their wrists open in front of classmates, according to a district report. In another, a kindergartener said his parents had talked about killing themselves in their home, and that he wanted to take his life, too.
"The current mental health crisis in
Increases in mental health needs after a natural disaster are widely documented. But it can often take several months -- as people begin to adjust to the "new normal" of disaster recovery -- for issues like depression, anxiety and PTSD to start to emerge.
"As time goes along, a lot of people are at the point where they're starting to feel hopeless," said
Struggling school district
Teachers and staff have struggled to help students since classes resumed, said
"We're seeing an increase in anxiety and depression-related problems," from absences from school to acting out, he said. "The issues are not anything more than you would expect to have happened after a Category 5 devastates the area."
Staff have been relying on an on-call mobile response team, funded by mental health dollars given to schools after last year's Parkland shooting, to evaluate more than 150 students who are experiencing mental distress, as well as a disaster counseling program aided by
But a shrinking pool of mental health providers has struggled to keep up with the increasing need for help, even just among children.
There are so few beds available in the region that some of the 125 students who have been Baker Acted since the storm have had to be sent as far away as
That's to say nothing of the day-to-day problems faced by students whose families are still struggling. Some no longer have reliable transportation to seek help or keep appointments. Others have had issues with money or insurance to cover that care.
The widening housing crisis has pushed many clinicians and mental health professionals who used to live in the area to leave, sapping resources and staffing. Some local providers have reported losing about 30% to 40% of their staff since the storm, and many have struggled "just to maintain the services they're required to provide for people," Chisholm said.
Life Management, one of the major mental health providers in the area, has lost at least a fifth of its workforce after Michael, said Mobley, and recruitment has been challenging given the lack of affordable housing. About 70 percent of all housing in
Requests for more aid
The district estimates that it needs
And with students now on summer break, some fear that their mental distress will only worsen as they detach from the regular routine and supervision they've had for months. The district is still providing food through some schools during the summer months, and local groups are arranging for summer camps, but many of the places children might gather -- the mall, movie theaters, parks -- are gone or scarred by hurricane damage.
"School was the one place that was consistent and safe. They knew they could go there every day, they knew someone would say hello to them every day, they knew they could get breakfast and lunch," said
"During the school year, as teachers and educators, we have a good pulse on how our kids are -- we can watch patterns and behaviors and we can interject and see them all the time. My fear is over the summer they won't have that positive or aware person who has that pulse on their well being."
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the
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