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Mental health checkups come door-to-door after Hurricane Michael

News Herald - 2/11/2019

Feb. 11--LYNN HAVEN -- Puttering around the yard, Jeanette Williams was working to keep busy.

She didn't want to remember the way the winds of Hurricane Michael felt as they shook her house while she prayed alone inside on her knees four months ago. She wasn't ready to deal the nightmares that caused her to wake up in the middle of night searching her Lynn Haven home for mysterious noises she was pretty sure weren't real. And she knew she had to keep her hands busy or she would turn back to the cigarettes she worked so hard to quit.

Then, one of her neighbors, accompanied by four strangers, showed up in her front yard.

"Hi Jeanette, can we come talk?" Diane Robinson asked. "We're asking people how they're doing after the storm."

"Where were you last week when I was having a nervous breakdown?" Williams answered.

***

In recent weeks, Life Management Center had launched "Project Hope," sending counselors door-to-door and stationing them at the Disaster Recovery Centers to try to meet people where they are. It's a nine-month program running in six counties -- Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson and Washington -- aiming to reach people who are struggling to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael and maybe don't realize it, or wouldn't normally engage with a place like Life Management.

"We know there's a need, but we haven't been inundated with requests," said Life Management Community Relations Specialist Tricia Pearce. "People might not realize it or might not be trying to reach out."

A review of the research by the medical journal Psychological Medicine found that, on average, 30 to 40 percent of disaster victims report Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) compared to the rate of 5 to 19 percent in the general population. Upticks of suicide and substance abuse issues are also noted in studies.

For a look at hurricanes in particular, after Hurricane Andrew a study that surveyed survivors at the six month mark found PTSD had increased by 26 percent, and then by 29 percent at 30 month mark. Another survey of 200 adults six months after Hurricane Sandy found an increased prevalence of PTSD by 14.5 percent, and a 6 percent increase in major depressive disorder.

It's not just PTSD. Studies after Hurricane Katrina found rises in "sub-threshold PTSD," a variation of generalized anxiety disorder, that has symptoms including irritability, diffuse anger, guilt and health worries. Locally, people just called it "Katrina brain."

But as common as all this is, it can be hard to recognize it in yourself.

"People say, 'I'm fine,' when I start a conversation," said Project Hope Counselor Jamaica Thompkins. "Then I get them talking."

***

The counselors are not out there trying to diagnosis people.

It's not a trick to get people into therapy, Thompkins said. Rather, Pearce said, it's meant to provide self-help tools or, when people want it, help people to connect with the resources that are out there.

"Our mentality is, we ask people how are you," Thompkins said.

On a typical day, Thompkins, joined by another counselor for safety, will head to areas hard-hit, where she thinks there might be a need, such as where FEMA trailers are parked or maybe a neighborhood someone told her about. Then, they get out of the car and talk to anyone outside.

At one stop, she talks to a family of four that were staying in their Foxwood apartment during the storm, reading the passage of the Bible where Jesus called the quelled the seas over and over again as the roof came off home. They teared up telling their story, and she comforts them before giving them a number for a hotline they can "whenever" they need it. She gives away pamphlets to another two people, undeterred by barking dogs, before realizing she's talked to everyone outside.

At the next stop, Thompkins talks an Army Corp of Engineers worker inspecting trailers that she met a few weeks ago while doing rounds. The worker tells her about one woman living in a condemned trailer with no power or running water. The story is the woman has a substance abuse problem and because of that, has been too ashamed to ask for help from anyone or even apply to FEMA. Thompkins has been by before, but promises to go again. If that doesn't work, she promises to send someone else to try.

****

It was at the next stop where Thompkins and her team ran into Williams outside.

And while their visit was a surprise, it was like Williams had been standing in the yard waiting for them. By her own admission she's not the type of person to participate or ask for help. Since the storm, it had gotten to the point where "all of the sudden you're lonely, just being alone," she said.

With just a tiny bit of coaxing, she was talking.

"I didn't leave because they always hype it up so bad. They are just trying to separate you from what little money you got, and then you got all this stuff piled up you don't need," Williams said. "Then it hit ... All they have got to do is say 'tropical storm' and I'm going. Don't know where I am going, but I'm gone."

She started crying from the stress of the memories, and then the exhaustion of picking up the pieces, getting her roof fixed, the lack of sleep and even the stress of the things she's always done, like driving family members to their various appointments. She cried from the loss of her husband and her son.

"You know crying is good healing," Thompkins said. "When you hold it all bottled up inside that's when you start having those aches and pains and anxieties when you let out. Have you ever had a good cry?"

"I'm afraid if I ever start I won't stop," Williams responded.

"You have to let it go," Thompkins said.

And while Williams worried the quiet tears would never stop, within ten minutes they had. There was a group hug, a list of things to try to ease some of the stress, a promise to come back and even the potential of turning Robinson into a new walking buddy.

"You know, I feel a little bit better," Williams said.

And without that bit of accomplishment, the group handed her a pamphlet and set off to see who they would meet next.

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