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How Hurricane Maria Has Impacted The Mental Health Of Puerto Rican Mothers

On a Caribbean island like Puerto Rico, rainfall is a usual occurrence. But for many throughout the archipelago, downpour has become a reminder of September 20, 2017, the day Hurricane Maria ravaged their nation, leaving countless people with the loss of homes, cars, jobs, loved ones and their sense of normalcy. As storms erupt — many times leading to the loss of recently returned electricity — each raindrop, flood and thunderclap triggers a people experiencing a severe mental health crisis.

According to the Department of Health in Puerto Rico, suicide on the island is on the rise post-Hurricane Maria. Reports show that self-inflicted deaths are up 29 percent and calls to suicide hotlines have surged by 246 percent, compared to the year prior. Officials believe that the devastation caused by the Category 4 storm, including the massive displacement it sparked and the substandard relief the people received from local and federal governments, is a factor in these increases.

Ivelisse Torres Fernandez, an assistant professor of counseling and educational psychology at New Mexico State University (NMSU), visited her home island twice after the hurricane, providing material aid as well as mental health assistance.

“I feel like we need to keep this issue at the forefront. That it’s not spoken much about anymore doesn’t mean that the people aren’t suffering. For me, I feel like I have a need to advocate for people on the island,” the Las Cruces, New Mexico-based Puerto Rican told Fierce.

Torres Fernandez, whose program at NMSU is rooted in social justice and multiculturalism, recently returned from her second trip to Puerto Rico, where she, alongside Counselors Without Borders, provided locals with self-help tools and also conducted research on the looming mental health plight.

We chatted with her about the spike in suicide, depression, anxiety and PTSD post-Maria, the psychological needs of the people of Puerto Rico, the demands for more aid and how you can help during this crisis.

1. You recently returned from a trip to Puerto Rico, where you were from March 16 to 23, conducting research on the mental health impact of Hurricane Maria as well as providing assistance with counseling, cleaning and rebuilding. Why did you feel an urgency to travel to the island to do this work?

Immediately after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans everywhere felt a need for something to be done. The magnitude of the catastrophe called for that, but with the slow response it was pretty obvious that we had to do something. This was my second trip to Puerto Rico post-Maria. The first one was in early December, and I was there for five weeks doing peer relief efforts, like providing basic needs to the people. During that trip, it was clear to me, though not surprising, that there was a lot of emotional suffering, too. That’s why I decided to come back in March. This spring break trip was focused more on mental health. I did take supplies to communities, but this time around I went with Counselors Without Borders, a group based in George Mason University that offers humanitarian counseling in post-disaster emergency situations, and we worked with counselors, people, camps and churches on the ground, giving them tools to cope, but also collecting data for my research.

2. Who did you speak with while you were there, and in what parts of the island were you conducting this research?

(Courtesy of Ivelisse Torres Fernandez)

I mostly stayed with a community in Maricao, a mountainous area on the western part of the island that was hit very hard. We talked to people of all ages, mostly adults, but also several elderly and children. We separated groups by ages, and I spent significant time with youth, because that’s my speciality. We asked them how the experience was for them, how they’re coping and what would be helpful for them.

3. As you know, studies have already shown an increase in depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal ideation and suicides. What, from your research, would you say is triggering this?

It’s a combination of several things. Many of the people are frustrated, and most of the frustration comes from a sense that they feel that the local government and federal agencies have not been good with dealing with the crisis, and some of the people we talked to were very angry with FEMA. There have been a lot of people who were denied claims because they lacked the proper paperwork to claim their homes. There are also undocumented families who can’t prove ownership of many things. So you have people who lost everything — homes, jobs as well as their sense of security and safety — and, in addition to that, now they feel forgotten. That’s where a lot of the frustration comes.

The people are also extremely exhausted, which we consider the third stage of disaster-related trauma. While most of the island has gotten electricity back, about 80 thousand still don’t, six months later. In Maricao, the electricity returned last month, but there are still outages every day. So even if people are wanting and trying to regain that level of normalcy, they can’t. People told us they have panic attacks every day that it rains, fearing their homes will flood again. These are people who lost their jobs because the storm ruined the business they worked at, people who know what it’s like to literally be stuck, waste-deep, in mud. They are terrified that hurricane season is just months away.

So, yes, the level of depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicide has escalated since then. The data is there and I saw it.

4. What are the psychological needs of the people of Puerto Rico following the storm?

(Courtesy of Ivelisse Torres Fernandez)

It sounds simple, but people really need to be listened to. It doesn’t always have to be a mental health expert; they just want to vent. They want to feel like people care about them, that they matter. They need to be understood and validated. They also need someone to reassure them that things will get better. That instillation of hope is core to disaster mental health work. We help individuals be hopeful and identify resources they can use to help themselves. We show them self-care strategies. Then, of course, there are people who still need water, food, a roof, a place to live, the basic needs, because how can you feel safe without that?

5. More than six months later, what are the challenges that remain to serve them?

Not everyone has access to mental health services, whether because they lack insurance or the stigma tied to it prevents them from seeking help. You often hear, “no estoy loco, so I’m not going to see a therapist.” Another problem is that they can’t physically access that help. There are wonderful groups going into the streets, providing free services, but if you have no way there, either because you’re an elder, you lost your vehicle or the roads still haven’t been cleared up, you can’t receive it.

6. Does the mental health impact vary across different regions?

In areas less impacted, the people have been able to go on easier. In places that were hit really hard, it’s been harder to regain that sense of normalcy. There are providers across the island, from FEMA personnel and the Department of Health to crisis hotlines, but, again, sometimes it can’t be accessed. In these cases, churches, of all denominations, have really stepped up and are restoring people with a sense of meaning for life. This is important, especially for the elderly, who have the highest rates of suicide post-Maria. They feel isolated. Their families left, they’ve been displaced and it’s hard to adjust to staying behind.

7. How has this impacted women in particular?

(Photo Credit: Raquel Reichard)

Many of the women I spoke with are single mothers, and they’re depressed and anxious. They are constantly worrying about their kids and grandkids, and about what happens when the next storm hits. There is so much that remains unknown. Oftentimes, these same women are the ones becoming leaders in their community. They are motivating, nurturing and caring for others. When we were there, we were sure to ask them how they were coping for themselves. If you’re not OK, if you’re broken, how can you give yourself to others?

8. What would you say is the most shocking thing you learned or witnessed while there?

Two stories stick out to me. One is of a woman who spent the storm away from her home. After the hurricane hit, she walked 12 hours in the mud to check in on her house and pet. When she got there, she didn’t have a house. She, like so many others, had to collect the valuables she found and just take her homelessness as yet another loss. Imagine walking that long to find that you have nothing. That’s wild. Another story is one I heard from a mental health specialist. He said an elder man had lit himself on fire. He burned himself — he has third-degree burns — because he wanted to die. That’s shocking, and speaks to the desperation that’s there.

Another thing I saw, though, that’s not necessarily shocking but reaffirming, was communities organizing more than ever. There is so much Puerto Rican pride and a will and determination to build and be stronger and better.

9. You’re a scholar. Why was it important for you, in addition to your research, to send a group of students who could also help with counseling, cleaning and rebuilding?

I think that, for me, as a Puerto Rican living in the U.S., this was a no-brainer. Every Puerto Rican suffered. This was horrendous. So in this moment of difficulty and tragedy, I thought, how can I give back in a way that’s meaningful? As an academic, I have the ability to empower others to do good things. For me, that was my students, who took it upon themselves the day after the storm hit to ask how they could help. As a scholar and professor, people want to talk research and pedigree, but, for me, the most important and satisfying part is that I’m mentoring the next generation of mental health professionals. The research is important, but that’s secondary. How I’m providing to my community is first. From there, I use what I learn, my research, to advocate for them.

10. How can readers who want to assist the people of Puerto Rico struggling with mental health after Maria help?

(Courtesy of Ivelisse Torres Fernandez)

If you know someone, displaced on the island or living here, provide a safe space for them to talk about what is happening. Support them, whether they went through it directly or not. Also, if you’re here and are a citizen, advocate for us. Call your representatives and push for things to get done. Ask them why it’s taking so long to get Puerto Rico help. Demand them to remove the red tape. The U.S. government is strangling our economy and killing us slowly. If you want change, use your voice.

Read: Donald Trump Said Puerto Rico Wants ‘Everything To Be Done For Them,’ But These Women Are Proving Him Wrong

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Despite Obstacles, Latinos And POC Have Been Getting Into College Without Help From SAT Rigging Aunt Becky And Her White Privilege


Despite Obstacles, Latinos And POC Have Been Getting Into College Without Help From SAT Rigging Aunt Becky And Her White Privilege

According to the Pew Research Center, there are fewer and fewer Latino students are going to college. In fact, despite how rapidly the Latino community is growing in the U.S., a widening education gap lands us at half as likely to hold a college degree as non-Latino white adults according to The Education Trust.

New York City school districts have the largest Black and Latino enrollment rates in the country but offer the fewest programs for gifted and talented children.

Recent surveys show that 10 school districts with 88 percent to 96 percent black and Hispanic enrollment have either one or zero K-5 Gifted and Talented programs.

In a recent interview with  Tai Abrams, a 2005 alumna of the Bronx HS of Science whose alumni list boasts eight Nobel and eight Pulitzer prize winners called the statistic “educational genocide.”

“It’s like killing off a group of people who are not getting the quality of education they deserve, and it’s a crime,” Abrams told the New York Post.

This is the kind of lack of educational nourishment that underlines the need for programs like affirmative actions.

People can whine and rant about it all they’d like but POC have a right to affirmative action. The latest arrest of Academy Award nominee Felicity Huffman and actress Lori Loughlin, best known for her role as Aunt Becky on “Full House” are proof of this fact.

In headline breaking news the two actresses were revealed to be part of a college cheating scam which gave their kids an unfair advantage that garnered them access to some of the country’s top universities, including Yale and Stanford. This is all despite the fact that the children of these two women, as well as those of over 30 other celebrities and CEOs, were already riding on an enormous wave of white privilege that gives so many white students a leg up in the college application process each year.

Never fear fellow Latinos and POC. While most of our parents might not currently be able to fork over a load of cash to pay and have someone else beef up our SAT exam scores, there are ways to beat the system. And that’s purely on smarts and know-how. Just how abuela would want you to do.

If you’ve already completed your college applications and you met all the deadlines, know that there are several things that you can do to improve your application post-submission. There are also cosas que puede hacer that are just for you because this is a time when you also need to practice some self-care and to remember that you are worthy.

1. Get back to taking care of yourself


Now that your applications are in and you’re not multi-tasking ad nauseam, you should take care of your mental health. Get back to sleeping seven to eight hours a night and cut back on junk food. Get back to making and eating actual meals when hungry rather than snacking on empty calories. Get back to your exercise routine, quit staying up too late, and research some mindful techniques to help you through the stressful waiting period.

2. Start researching scholarships


There are scholarships for everything and everyone. Scholarships for first-generation college students, Dreamers, musicians, people who wear glasses, and on, and on. This McDonald’s Scholarship is seeking to give money to Latino students. The due date is February 4! Looking for other kinds of scholarships? Check out this directory.

3. Double-check letters of recommendation


Most colleges are using online tools to collect your application and recommendation letters, and most colleges will not turn you away for a late letter. Go to all sites and confirm that all your letters of recommendation have been turned in. Contact any teachers who haven’t turn in letters by sending a cheerful e-mail letting them know that their letter is not showing in the portal, say something like, “Dear Ms. Lopez, I went to the UC Davis portal and did not see your letter of recommendation. Please let me know if there’s something else you need from me.”

 4. Check your FAFSA


If you haven’t filled out the FASFA, you need to do it now. If you have filled it out be sure to make sure all information is filled out correctly to minimize annoying delays. You CAN fill out the FAFSA and provide tax information even if your parents are undocumented. Simply enter 000-00-0000 for their Social Security number. Do no enter their TIN or tax identification numbers that they use to file their taxes!

5. Do more research on each college you hope to attend


In order to make the best decision when you start getting those acceptances that we know you’ll get, you should start researching each college, and the program in the college you intend to major. You should also research student body demographics. It might be very difficult to go to a school that has very few Latinx students.

6. Research your intended major


It’s important to have some kind of idea how much you’ll be able to make with a four-year degree if you plan to go to graduate school, and how much that might cost, and weigh that information with how much money, if any, you’re willing to borrow.

7. Be realistic about what you can afford


Sure there’s financial aid and scholarships, but student aid doesn’t always cover all costs. Do you really want to go into debt? We now know that loan companies have been targeting people of color and veterans, hyping the promise of education and taking advantage of people who have very little money to spare.

8. Have a real discussion with your parents about how much they can pay


I had a student who got into more than one four-year colleges straight out of high school. She was all set to study medicine when her parents told her that they couldn’t afford the tuition. Before she applied and got in, they hadn’t quite understood how expensive college would be, even with the aid that she got. She was, needless to say, devastated and she didn’t quite know what to do.

 9. If you’re concerned about funding, consider community college for the first two years.


That student that I was telling you about, well, she wound up staying with her parents and going to the local community college from which she’s about to graduate and transfer to a UC. As a result, she saved thousands and thousands of dollars doing her general education and preparing for her major at a two-year. While I’m on the subject of community college, you should know that students who go to community college have better persistent rates and get better grades than students who go straight to a four-year. Most California community colleges have Puente programs which provide extra support for Latinx students.

10. Don’t sabotage everything because you’re afraid


You’ve heard of those students who dropped out of high school during the last month or two of senior year or the student who didn’t turn in that last assignment and didn’t graduate? Human nature is a funny thing, and sometimes we’re afraid of success. Gente, we’re about to take over this place, echale ganas!

11. Spend some time reflecting on whether you’re sure you’re ready to leave home.


Many students drop out of school during the first year because they weren’t ready to leave home in the first place. It’s a lot to expect for every single young person in America to be ready to move to a new city and go to college on their own at just eighteen. As a nation, we need to get better at realizing that. Some students feel they have failed when this happened, but there are many different paths to getting an education. If you decide to stay home and attend a community college, remember that authors, Oscar Hijuelos, and Amy Tan went to community college, and so did musician Alice Bag, that one director of Star Wars, George Lucas, and Tom Hanks.

12. Keep in mind that you might not be ready today, but that you may well be in three months.


As you reflect on your readiness to move out of your house and into a dorm, remember that young people grow and change very fast. Maybe you feel mostly ready but your feeling reticent too. Keep in mind that feeling a bit afraid doesn’t mean you aren’t ready now, and how you feel today might change a lot in few months.

13. Try not to be mean to your parents


If you’re pretty sure that you’ll be going off to a four-year away from home, you’re at that age and maturity level where your parents are making you crazy. Being impatient with them or mean won’t make you feel better. Take it from me (mi híjo is on his way to college tambíen), your parents are probably profoundly sad that you’ll be leaving home. Spend some time trying to understand how they feel and compórtate bíen.

14. Start donating things you’ve outgrown


When you do move out of your parents house and into a dorm, you can’t take everything with you. Do your parents a favor and start getting rid of things piled up in your room and closet that you’ve outgrown or don’t need. Pass down things to your hermanx that they could use and donate the rest.

15. Help your hermanx be successful in school


Now that you have what it takes to be successful in school and apply for four-year colleges, help your sibs. Encourage them to stay focused, to manage their time wisely. Talk to them about the importance of learning and having a strong GPA. Give them study tips, tutor them in subjects they may need improvement.

16. Write thank you notes


Studies show that practicing gratitude is good for you. It’s also good for the teachers, mentors, family members, and friends who have helped you through the college application process. Take some time writing anyone who helped a genuine, heartfelt thank you note.

17. If you work, save money.


This one seems obvious, but it might be one of the hardest things to do, BUT if you’re not supporting yourself or anyone else like your parents probably are, you need to start saving money. Set aside a little money each month that you can take with you to college. You’ll need it! Here are some apps that could help you get started.

18. Read


I’ve noticed that one skill that students struggle with in my college English classes is reading — reading material that is at a college level and so much of it. You will be assigned an astounding amount of reading in college. The best way to prepare for that is to keep reading — read anything and look up any words you don’t know that seem important to understanding. Looking up words will increase your vocabulary, and I’ve taught many students frustrated by their vocabulary.

19. Plan your summer


If you have to work all summer, you should plan your summer carefully. Be sure to plan a trip or two with friends, especially those who are also going off to college or those you won’t see when you’re away. Plan out time you’ll spend with your familia. You’ll feel better leaving for school, if you spent quality time with everyone before hand.

20. Try not to stress out


Stressing out won’t help you. Try not to check your e-mail for acceptance info too obsessively. Go on a walk in the fresh air, cuddle your favorite pet, tell your mamá, or favorite tía, what’s on your mind, and remember that getting accepted, or not, to the college of your choice does not determine your self-worth.

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After Two Parkland Students Commit Suicide, Community Unites To Share Mental Health Resources


After Two Parkland Students Commit Suicide, Community Unites To Share Mental Health Resources

One year after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., two students have died in apparent suicides, compelling the community to come together and share mental health resources.

On Saturday, a sophomore at the school, where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting last year, took his own life. One week prior, Sydney Aiello, 19, a recent Stoneman Douglas graduate who lost her best friend in the massacre, also ended her life.

As the Florida’s emergency chief Jared Moskowitz calls for the state Legislature to send more mental health resources for the high school’s students and faculty, calling mental health a “bipartisan issue” on Twitter, the community has stepped in where the state government has been slow to respond.

On Sunday, more than 60 school, county, city, child services and law enforcement officials, as well as mental health specialists, teachers and parents, met for an emergency meeting. Ryan Petty, father of Alaina Petty, a 14-year-old freshman who was murdered on Feb. 14. 2018, said that the school district will be giving parents the “Columbia Protocol, six questions that parents should ask their children, the Miami Herald reports. Based on their answers, they will know what emergency resources are available to them. Additionally, nonprofits are offering free therapy groups and services.

Online, it’s students, former and current, who are using social media to offer resources to those still suffering from the trauma and loss of last year’s school shooting. David Hogg, who graduated from Stoneman Douglas in 2018 and has become a fierce anti-gun advocate, took to Twitter, reminding Parkland students and grads that trauma doesn’t go away quickly.

“Stop saying you’ll get over it,'” he wrote. “You don’t get over something that never should have happened because those that die from gun violence are stolen from us not naturally lost. Trauma and loss don’t just go away, you have to learn to live with it through getting support.”

According to Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, who spoke with Teen Vogue, witnessing traumatic events can lead to symptoms consistent with acute stress disorder, including recurring memories, dreams or nightmares of the event; mood changes; irritability and more. These memories, she adds, can lead to negative thoughts, hopelessness, trouble sleeping and more.

Hogg wants youth to know that these symptoms are normal and that they can be managed through help, like therapy, talking with friends and family, meditation and self-care practices.

He, along with others, shared his own self-care routine.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, know there is help available. For immediate support, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis and are unsure where to turn, you can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line by sending HOME to 741741.

Read: Survivor Of Florida School Shooting Emma Gonzalez Is Turning Her Anger Into Political Activism

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