One Year After Superstorm Sandy: Finding Strength And Support in the Community

    • October 18, 2013

“We don’t forget the community that we live in,” John R. Lumpkin, MD, MPH, explained during an October 18, 2013, panel discussion on the lingering mental health effects from Hurricane Sandy. That’s why the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is providing $5 million in grant money towards the continuing recovery to be focused primarily on social services support, including mental health services for individuals and families in the state.

In July 2013, the Foundation announced that a portion of that money would go to the Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MHANJ) to help storm victims cope with ongoing emotional fallout and shore up available resources.

Lumpkin, RWJF senior vice president and director, Targeted Teams, convened a diverse group to address the issue in the lead up to the storm’s one-year anniversary. He was joined by Carolyn Beauchamp, CEO of MHANJ; Faith Liguori, crisis counselor and resident of Seaside Park; Mayor Matt Doherty of Belmar; and Don Dalesio, market manager from Townsquare Media. Public television’s Steve Adubato served as moderator for the Culture of Health Forum, which took place at the Barnabas Health Behavioral Health Center in Toms River.

Lumpkin pointed out that the Foundation’s previous work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina provided insight into how and when emotional distress rears up: “It takes a while to get repairs done around the house, to get the check from the insurance director. Only after that work is done, does it hit you that life really isn’t the same.” Beauchamp agreed, “The reality is sinking in that this is not going to be a quick fix... It’s not just that people lost their homes, they lost their neighborhoods.”

With the anniversary of the storm, many New Jersey residents are experiencing new feelings of despair, triggered by media coverage, memories, and the realization that they still have far to go in the rebuilding process. Approximately 20,000 families in New Jersey still aren’t back in their homes, and many others are in partial homes. Add to that the fact that the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage forbearance program, which allowed borrowers to suspend up to 12 months’ worth of mortgage payments while they repaired their homes, expired this month, forcing many families to make mortgage payments on a home in which they can’t live.

“This is not about mental illness,” pointed out Liguori, whose own house was destroyed by the storm. “This is about having a normal response... their emotions are within the norm of dealing with a tragic event. And by talking about it, you will come through.”

To that end MHANJ has partnered with the Disaster and Terrorism Branch (DTB) of the New Jersey Department of Human Services’ Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services on the Hope and Healing hotline.  Storm victims can call 877-294-HELP for counseling and referrals. The organization has also launched a program to train people in the community, such as mail carriers and clergy, on how to identify residents in need and provide information. Townsquare Media is also playing an important role in getting the message out to the community about available resources and where to turn during times of emotional distress. Dalesio explained that he sees residents who fear they are failing to live up to the “Jersey Strong” motto. That’s why Townsquare Media stations continue to report on the recovery process to this day, with both news coverage and public service announcements.

Of course, in a state full of people who pride themselves on their strength and independence, sometimes it takes a lot of prompting to get them to make that call. Panelists said that neighbors have to look out for neighbors, and get that conversation going. As Lumpkin put it, “Almost anyone would go into the emergency center and get help [for a broken leg]. But here, it’s your psyche that’s broken, and you think ‘I’m going to tough this out.’” He concluded by saying “It’s not about the individual being strong. It’s about our communities being strong. And the way we do that is by helping each other... Because we’re strong together.”