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FINDING A WAY FORWARD: Mental health remains concern for survivors of Michael

News Herald - 8/21/2019

Aug. 21--The physical evidence of Hurricane Michael's impact on Bay County is impossible to miss.

Felled trees, tarped houses and piled up debris remain fixtures of the scenery of the affected area even 10 months after the storm's landing on Oct. 10, 2018.

There were other marks of the Michael's impact that were harder to spot, however, and the recovery from such damage much trickier to manage.

"That's the elephant in the room," Bay District Schools superintendent Bill Husfelt said, referring to the mental and emotional challenges survivors have faced since the hurricane. "It's the thing we know is going to continue unless we get help for people, for students No. 1, but also faculty and staff as well.

"This mental health thing, there are significant studies that show if we don't get them help it could be beyond dangerous. We're talking to students and teachers about watching out for each other and themselves. We're in a very, very dangerous time right now if we're not careful."

Bay District Schools took steps to address the issue of mental health even before the hurricane with the formation of a mental health team at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year with school safety funding that came after the mass shooting in Parkland.

The district has since received a federal SERV grant of $1.25 million to increase access to mental health services, while getting from the state a telehealth kiosk in every school that will connect students and their parents with mental health providers through large touch screens and cameras similar to FaceTime.

After the hurricane, however, the demand for mental health services exceeded the supply, particularly with some community providers down as much as 40 percent of its staff as a result of the storm.

"Right after the storm there was an influx of community and federal and state resources that came into the area to try to help and support all the schools," said Cheri Wroblewski, coordinator of the Mental Health Initiative for BDS. "As the support faded out, the needs of the students were still there.

"Our mental health team at the time was very small, so we were trying to triage this influx of students that were now dealing with the traumatic events of the hurricane, many of whom lost their homes and everything they owned, who moved seven, eight, nine, 10 times."

Many of those students were also athletes and many of their struggles in coping with the trauma of experiencing a major natural disaster while trying to focus on both their academic and athletic performance were noticed pretty quickly by their coaches.

"As a head coach you know your kids and you can tell by the way they're acting if they're faking it or not," Arnold softball coach and athletic director Rick Green said. "I had a girl on the team that just wasn't acting right, come to find out her parents were getting divorced. They're one of the ones who lived in town and their house was destroyed.

"It's a big change. Kids are used to the security of coming to their house. When they don't have that it's a different story. We're thinking about it with being a mom and dad and financial stuff. They're thinking about the whole world. Their whole world is gone when they lose their home."

Even for those who didn't lose their homes, the trauma wasn't easy to escape. Mosley junior volleyball player Emma Robertson said it was difficult for her and her friends to avoid being reminded on a daily basis of just how much things had changed.

"I feel like everyone's living situation was hit differently, but emotionally everyone was the same," she said. "It didn't matter if your house got destroyed or not, it's our school, our city, it's all different. Places me and my friends used to hang out at are completely demolished. All those memories there, it was sad for everyone.

"It's so crazy how the hurricane changed everything. We always used to talk about how you see that stuff in movies, but you never really think it will happen to you. It still affects you months and months afterwards. It's hard to describe, but it's definitely emotional and we're all very heartbroken by what happened."

Ken Chisolm, a licensed mental health counselor with BDS who has worked in community mental health for 34 years, said that sort of response is common for those who have lived through a natural disaster.

"What we experienced was what you would expect right after the storm," he said. "Once you get moved down the road a little bit with the storm there's a honeymoon period, but as you move down in time there's some disillusionment that takes place, not just with kids, but with families and all of us.

"You experience things where you think things are gonna get better and they don't get better, so you have an increase in depression and anxiety. Some of that stuff manifests itself in behavior with adults and children, but more so with children because they don't have the ability to communicate verbally as well as an older person does."

Many coaches said that the recognition of some of the things their players were facing away from their school and their team affected the way they coached them.

"The thing I had to learn was that in every situation I couldn't just go and start yelling," said Tracy Sims, who coached the Rutherford girls basketball team last season. "If you see a girl make a mistake, instead of yelling at her about why she's doing what's doing, as a coach you take a moment to realize that this is their outlet of relief here.

"I had to be mindful of how I handled them in that particular moment. I didn't want to make a bad situation worse."

Rutherford boys soccer coach Matt Treadway said the fact that the impact of the storm was so widespread actually helped bring his players closer together.

"I think it's just the shared experience of everyone going through it and having that common thing happen to them was a positive thing," he said. "I think all the kids knew each one had their own experience, their own story. Each person had a different level of trauma where their house was destroyed or they had to evacuate.

"They were more respectful of each other and more willing to help each other in that aspect because they were more aware of what everyone went through."

Chisolm said students who participate in sports and other extra curricular activities are generally better equipped to deal with mental health challenges.

"I believe, and it's my personal and professional opinion, that children who are involved in sports and school activities outside of the regular academic requirements are going to be less stressed," he said. "Research shows that exercise is very important as far as helping with depression. I think we should do as much as we can do to get kids and adults in some kind of sporting activities. It's very healthy and helpful for them."

Mosley's Katie Brown embraced that idea more than most during her freshman year, deciding to add to her favorite sport of volleyball by picking up basketball for coach Jon Mason and softball for coach Josh Vandergrift.

Brown said she wasn't planning on playing basketball or softball, and in fact had never even picked up a bat or a glove before last year, but playing sports from the fall all the way through the spring proved a helpful coping mechanism.

"I'd have to say it was a distraction from the hurricane," she said. "I would stay at school longer. Some nights I wouldn't go home to do my homework, I'd stay at Mosley instead of going home to do it. I could focus more and I didn't have to look at my room that was empty, didn't have to look at walls or moving boxes or anything like that."

The struggle to process the emotional trauma that came from Hurricane Michael didn't end with the last school year, however, with Chisolm saying that anxiety issues related to the storm can linger long term if not dealt with during the first two years.

He said the anniversary of Hurricane Michael, just over six weeks away, could be a sort of retraumatizing event for many people who lived through it last year.

"If you've been through a traumatic event like this hurricane, you're worried it could happen again," he said. "That's a frightening thing for children and adults. With an anniversary (of a natural disaster) you see an increase in anxiety and depression. It's a natural response because reality has fallen short of what you expected it to be.

"I know these kids who experienced the trauma are very concerned that it's gonna happen again. Our job as parents and teachers and people in the community is to provide a level of comfort and safety the best we can. We can't tell them it will never happen again, but we can tell them that we'll keep them safe if it does. That's a comfort to kids."

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(c)2019 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)

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