Hurricanes, COVID-19 and mental health – Part V: ‘Such a betrayal’
By DEAN RUSSELL
Columbia Journalism Investigations
and JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS
Center for Public Integrity
(Texas Tribune) – Few Americans are protected from disaster-related stress this year. As COVID-19 exacts collective trauma, more than 40 states and territories so far have launched federally funded crisis counseling programs in response.
But the need to stay physically distanced upends the way disaster counseling usually operates. States scrambled to organize video calls and are relying more on hotlines. Unable to send people door to door, they’re hoping that online announcements, posters in stores or pamphlets with food aid will get the word out that help is available. In the midst of all this, some officials are also trying to support the mental health of people who survived extreme weather before the pandemic hit – and they’re bracing for more climate disasters.
“Just being able to reach out … has been a challenge,” said Garcia Bodley, director of the Louisiana Department of Health’s crisis counseling program. “We’re missing that connectivity we’ve had in the past.”
For the survivors of recent hurricanes, floods and wildfires, the coronavirus represents yet another weight. About three-quarters of those who took the Public Integrity/CJI survey said the pandemic is compounding their previous disaster experience, from piling on more stress to further eroding their finances.
Both Barbara Herndon and Sandra Edwards – older Black women with chronic lung problems – fall into high-risk categories for the virus. They’re afraid of getting sick. Herndon says she’s spending more time at home alone, worries intensifying.
Many of the survey respondents are profoundly anxious about the future. Nearly all were concerned that their community will be hit by more disasters; two-thirds were very concerned. A few had already moved at least in part for that reason.
And they’re deeply frustrated about the government’s preparedness for and response to disaster. Two-thirds rated it “poor.” Only 12% said it was “good” or “great.”
The problems they identified ranged from scant rebuilding help to local development decisions that worsen flooding, a problem so common that the flood-survivor organization Higher Ground now has more than 50 chapters in the U.S. And then there’s the halting, often nonexistent response to the warming climate supercharging storms and fires.
“After a disaster, if the government does not declare a climate emergency and start acting like it, it’s just such a betrayal,” said Margaret Klein Salamon, a psychologist who started the advocacy group The Climate Mobilization after living through Superstorm Sandy. Providing mental health support to survivors even as elected officials fail to rein in global warming “is like a Band-Aid. How can we trust a government that does so little to protect us?”
Even when it’s working well, crisis counseling may be only the start of what survivors need. Counselors try to connect people with longer-lasting services when required – that’s the logic for why the program ends after a year. But America’s fragmented system of mental health care is strapped at the best of times.
Almost a quarter of all U.S. adults with a mental illness reported that they were unable to get the treatment they needed, according to the advocacy group Mental Health America. Some of the most common reasons: lack of insurance, lack of providers and inability to cover copays.
The country should change its response to psychological damage in an era of worsening disasters, according to FEMA.
“There is a need for investment in mental health services at every level, but especially at the local, state, tribal and territorial levels. Survivors will always receive the best, most appropriate services from those who live in their own community,” the agency stated.
Using data from FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Integrity and CJI identified 178 U.S. counties or municipalities predisposed to disaster-driven mental illness. All have vulnerable populations that were hit by multiple, property-damaging hurricanes, floods or wildfires in the last 10 years. At least a quarter of those places have poor access to psychological care, according to County Health Rankings.
In Harris County, which includes Houston, 29% of Black and 33% of Hispanic residents were unable to afford medical care in 2017, according to state data. That’s compared with 10% of White residents. Mental health providers in Houston are concentrated on the southern and western sides of the city, away from Herndon and Edwards’ neighborhoods.
Herndon tried to find a therapist several times after Harvey. But when she began calling the list of a dozen or so people she’d been given by her insurance provider, many were no longer taking her insurance. The others never called back, she said.
“I stopped actively looking for help,” she added. “It was making me more depressed.”
Edwards, for her part, said she looked into therapy but could not afford the copays.
Access to care can make a huge difference. Between 2015 and 2017, Sherri Blatt, 54, was flooded three times in her neighborhood of Robindell in southwest Houston. Blatt, a recovering alcoholic, relapsed and was overwhelmed with stress each time.
After the last flood – Harvey – she went into therapy and was diagnosed with PTSD. Like Herndon, she continues to be frightened by the sound of rain. But she’s in a much better place – and almost two years sober. Today, she works for a rehabilitation center helping others.
“If I flooded today … it would look different for me,” she said. “I have a different support system that can carry me through.”
Herndon has accepted that she may never get professional help, but she learned a few breathing techniques that help her cope. She also joined a neighborhood group, the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus, where she advocates for more mental health resources. During the pandemic, they’ve been meeting by phone weekly.
Still, she worries about what future storms may bring. In the years since her husband died, the warming climate has amped up the risks in her now flood-prone neighborhood. She thinks often about her promise to stay.
“And, look, I’ve been keeping it,” she said. “I’m still here.”
Kio Herrera and Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this article. Dean Russell is a reporting fellow for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School. Funding for CJI comes from the school’s Investigative Reporting Resource and the Energy Foundation. Jamie Smith Hopkins is a senior reporter with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Washington, D.C.
This story was published in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations.
Disclosure: Rice University and Texas Southern University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article was first published at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters–mental-health by The Texas Tribune.