People struggling with mental health issues like anxiety and depression have a difficult time under the best of circumstances. Now imagine them trying to cope after being forced from their homes for more than 10 days -- part of that time without their medication.
Michele Green-Ferrante, a program director at the New Jersey Mental Health Association, doesn't have to imagine. She's working with 20 clients displaced from their Toms River-area homes by Hurricane Sandy, helping them find places to stay and pharmacies that can fill their prescriptions.
“A lot of folks came here very quickly and did not have their medication,” Green-Ferrante said.
While New Jersey’s healthcare system plans for emergencies, providers have often had to make decisions on the fly throughout the crisis. And that exacts a toll: Some residents and providers have faced more than a week of unrelieved stress.
State and local health officials emphasized on Thursday that mental health and other resources are readily available for those who are in need of help.
Leslie Terjesen, spokeswoman for the Ocean County Department of Health, said she advises patience for those who still can’t return to potentially damaged homes, while admitting that the advice is difficult to both take and give.
She added that the storm has brought out the best from service providers, some of whom have lost their own homes. She also expressed gratitude for those who’ve come from other states, including the Alabama electrical workers across the street from the department.
Terjesen was interviewed on her cellphone outside the department office, which lost power and phones late Thursday morning. She half-jokingly said the 40-degree weather outside felt warmer than the inside of the building, adding that the storm that dropped four to eight inches of snow on the area added insult to injury.
“This is a storm that we have never ever encountered here at the Jersey Shore,” Terjesen said of Sandy. “We have a lot of evacuees that have medical needs that are certainly more intense than what we at the health department [normally] deal with."
She added that the demands across the region are “unbearable,” including the need to check the credentials of those who volunteer.
Terjesen also said that there will be an additional need for mental health support when residents return home to find that everything is lost.
“Where are people going to go” remains a focus of the relief effort, she said. “Some people have gone from one shelter to another."
For instance, shelters set up at Toms River schools were closed while the schools prepare to reopen. Evacuees were moved to a shelter at Monmouth Park.
Help Is Just a Call Away
State Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd emphasized help lines available to residents: 211 will connect them to health experts who can offer advice on food safety, water safety, and house safety issues.
In addition, the state’s toll-free Mental Health Helpline, 1-877-294-HELP (1-877-294-4357), is only a call away. It’s operated by the Mental Health Association and the Department of Human Services.
The association's chief operating officer Robert Kley said the line has received more than 1,000 calls.
“There’s a lot of stress on individuals. They may not see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kley said. “One of the things about traumatic events is that there’s initial stress, but the real impact comes a month later.”
Kley said this is particularly true for first responders and other service providers, who may not feel the trauma now but will in the coming weeks. He also noted that vulnerable populations have lost their support networks.
“We’re going to continue to work in the field over the next couple of months,” he said, adding that mental health professionals “will be there for the long haul. We’re not going away.”
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