News Herald forum brings together mental health experts to help community heal
News Herald - 4/26/2019
April 26-- Apr. 26--PANAMA CITY -- As the county approaches month seven after Hurricane Michael, post-storm anxiety continues to take its toll on mental health.
Experts want you to know it's OK to take care of your emotional health during this time.
Several mental health professionals joined The News Herald at an open forum at the Bay County Government Building on Thursday evening to talk about coping with post-hurricane stressors and what to expect as the county braces for another hurricane season.
"When it comes to Hurricane Michael, (many) haven't been able to reach out," said Katie Zimpfer, project manager for Project HOPE at Big Bend Community Based Care. "Part of our job, more than anything else, is to assess where they are, what their strengths are, and help them develop a plan so they can move forward."
In addition to Zimpfer, the panel featured Michael Barbour, administrator/chief nursing officer with Emerald Coast Behavior Hospital; Ann Wing, network coordinator with Big Bend Community Based Care; Ken Chisholm, mental health team coordinator for Bay District Schools; Brandy Haiman, private practice clinical social worker in Panama City; and Theresa McDonald, president and chief operating officer for Adult Services at Life Management Center.
The forum addressed how the storm has affected different facets of society in a variety of ways.
While anxiety still is running rampant for many children and adults within the county, Barbour has seen many former patients of Emerald Coast Behavioral Hospital who are suffering instead with depression, delusion and lack of direction. The hospital only recently reopened and is able to use only about a third of its building.
"I notice when I see them in the community they kind of wander about like they're not sure which direction to go," Barbour said.
Barbour said he has worried for the people dealing with pre-existing mental health issues because of how much it has affected many people who previously were without issues.
"There are people really in trouble. I'm not sure if they're taking their medication that they're supposed to get. I've wondered myself how they got through that first couple of months."
According to Chisholm, many students have trouble focusing during class and have issues with memory. They also might be acting out during class, especially if they have trouble communicating verbally, he said.
Haiman said she also has noticed a variety of emotions with adults and children as the community is grieving.
"We are noticing that they feel this really incredible sense of grief and loss," she said. "We have all lost. Our community is no longer the same and that doesn't mean that we can't be stronger and better, but we still have to grieve."
Haiman encouraged local residents to be kind to each other as we grieve and think hard about what we need to take care of ourselves.
"We have to be gentle with one other while we're going through those stages because we're all going through those stages at different times," she said. "It's been a long six months and we're physically and emotionally tired."
The storm didn't just destroy buildings, McDonald reminded listeners. It also destroyed routines, and there are gaps throughout our resources. Many children, she believes, are having trouble coping because they are reflecting the stress from home.
"You'll notice that children are having a hard time, and part of that is their parents. The adults are the emotional regulator," she said. "And parents are very stressed."
Many of the professionals expressed concern over how mental health will fare in the coming months as research has shown that about month seven brings a period of disillusion. Research says there likely will be increased levels of anxiety, PTSD, homelessness and substance use and abuse, especially with previous users. Locals are growing tired of dealing with the mess, frustration over insurance, and hurricane season is fast approaching. Some have given up.
However, there also is hope -- many services knocked out by the hurricane continue to come back online and funding begins flowing to several organizations.
If you are dealing with mental health issues following the hurricane, the experts say do not isolate yourself or turn to substance abuse to negate the grief.
Instead, take time participating in activities you loved before the storm. Don't instill fear in your family, but make sure they are prepared for future storms. Listen to your children. Reach out to loved ones. Watch out for negative patterns in your own thinking.
"If you find yourself in a pattern of thinking and feeling that things are hopeless or that you're helpless to change things, or that you're worthless, those are very serious emotions," Chisholm said. "Folks need to reach out and let them know that they're feeling that way so they can help."
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