While the public response to Hurricane Sandy has focused on lost houses and damaged infrastructure, hundreds of crisis counselors have been focusing on the emotional impact.
Organizations throughout the state have been helping residents cope with their immediate losses, as well as providing resources to deal with Sandy’s long-term effects.
The counseling effort received a $2 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on December 6, to be distributed among four mental health providers : the Mental Health Association in New Jersey; Family Service Association; Family Service Bureau of Newark; and a division of Barnabas Health.
State and nonprofit health officials said crisis counseling provides a crucial bridge for residents who underwent a life-changing experience. Unlike conventional mental health services, crisis counseling aims to assist residents who are overwhelmed by stress after experiencing a crisis.
“It’s just a stressful time for people, so things that may have been relatively simple before may be more challenging,” said Renee Burawski, project manager for the New Jersey Hope and Healing program, the crisis counseling effort overseen by the Mental Health Association in New Jersey Inc.
“Frustration was present fairly early on” due to power outages and transportation problems, Burawski said. “There’s a lot of frustration that persists in many of the communities.”
Crisis counseling can be as simple as listening to residents describe what is causing them stress and talking about ways to cope with these issues, including reaching out to support networks like friends and family.
“It’s not about pathologizing people’s reactions — it’s about teaching people that those reactions are fairly typical,” Burawski said. “It’s about educating people about typical stress reactions that resolve over time, over two or three months.”
Only a small minority actually develops mental disorders, she said.
The state has a hotline for residents facing stress, 877-294-HELP (877-294-4357), which is available from 8 a.m. to midnight daily.
The sooner counseling can be offered after a disaster, the better, according to Adrienne Fessler Belli, director of the disaster and terrorism branch of the state Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
“It’s very important after you have a disaster to provide support, in order to help people recover quickly,” Fessler Belli said.
Fessler Belli said New Jersey was in a strong position to react to the storm because of an existing disaster response crisis counselor program. The state program was put into action immediately after the storm, with the program expanded and supported by the FEMA funding, which allows more counselors to offer services.
“It’s not treatment, it’s not therapy. It’s providing the opportunity to talk about what they’re going through and to get information and resources to help,” she said. “People recover in their own way and in their own time. Providing the emotional support helps them do that. This is not about diagnosing a problem — it’s about how everyone impacted by a disaster can use the support.”
The FEMA grant will fund the program through late December, but the state is in the process of receiving funding for a two-month extension through February, as well as applying for funding for another nine months.
Fessler Belli expects the emotional impact of the storm to continue to be challenging to residents through the spring and summer. This includes residents who have a delayed emotional impact, as well as some who won’t feel the impact until they take trips to the Shore during the warmer months.
“During a disaster everyone reacts differently — you can never judge yourself based on anyone else’s reaction,” she said. “Our program will be able to help individuals at any stage of recovery from this disaster.”
State and federal programs have delivered crisis counseling to more than 25,000 residents since the storm, Fessler Belli said.
Helping First Responders
Another major piece of the ongoing counseling effort is a program to help first responders. There is a separate anonymous phone line for first responders, 866- 486-5178.
Fessler Belli emphasized that while the state hasn’t seen a large-scale problem with first responders experiencing post-traumatic stress, officials have been aggressive in making sure police, fire, EMS, and other responders know that support is available. She noted during an interview on Monday that she was meeting with first responders in North Jersey that night who had asked the state for information on available counseling resources.
“I think that kind of stigma — that we shouldn’t ask for help — that’s slowly going by the wayside,” Fessler Belli said. “People understand that this is not treatment, that you don’t have a problem of any sort, that what they have gone through is traumatic.”
The trauma of repeatedly helping people who have suffered losses has extended beyond traditional first responders to other groups, including public works and cleanup crews.
“Public works staff typically don’t have to deal with these kinds of things,” Burawski said. “There are groups of people who I think we’re going to have to attend to who are not traditionally groups who we would think about after a natural disaster.”
The Verona-based Mental Health Association in New Jersey is the largest of the four crisis-counseling providers. It has roughly 145 full- and part-time crisis counselors working in 10 counties, Burawski said.
Burawksi added that the trained counselors reflect FEMA’s emphasis on having “neighbors helping neighbors” and include people who aren’t mental health professionals.
The Mental Health Association in New Jersey President and CEO Carolyn Beauchamp said New Jersey is just at the beginning of its emotional recovery. “It’s going to go on for a year-and-a half, two years.”