For many survivors of Hurricane Sandy, emotional well-being remains as much a work in progress as the construction sites and vacant homes scattered across the New Jersey landscape.
Mental health professionals say it's as urgent for Sandy victims to seek help now as it was nearly 12 months ago, when the storm forever altered their lives.
Counselors are reporting that many marriages that survived the first several months after Sandy are breaking up as the one-year anniversary approaches, according to Carol Benevy, the project lead for New Jersey Hope and Healing
Benevy, who heads a team of 21 counselors in Ocean County, also said that many residents -- including those who lived out of state part-time -- have never returned to their homes.
“People can’t face it,” she said, adding, “It’s not just that people have lost their homes, they’ve lost their neighborhoods.”
Benevy's federally funded project provides crisis counselors to help people recover emotionally from the storm and to identify those in need of further counseling.
The need to call attention to resources available to residents prompted the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to sponsor a discussion of the issue on Friday at the Barnabas Health Behavioral Health Center in Toms River.
Even residents who have returned to their homes are struggling emotionally, Benevy said.
“They thought they’d feel better,” she explained. “The reality really is sinking in right now that this is not going to be a quick fix.”
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Senior Vice President Dr. John R. Lumpkin, who directs the foundation’s healthcare group, said officials knew from experience with other disasters -- such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- that behavioral counseling would be needed once the initial wave of funding was over.
Lumpkin said residents dealing with unresolved insurance claims could have a growing sense of frustration that leads to sadness. If left untreated, more serious mental heath issues can arise. “It’s that sort of hopelessness over a long period of time . . . where the interventions are so critical,” he said.
In July, the foundation awarded a $736,000 grant to the Mental Health Association in New Jersey to support its efforts to reach out to vulnerable residents and prepare for future disasters.
Faith Liguori, a Seaside Park resident who lost her home during the storm, said people in New Jersey have had the uncertainty caused by Sandy compounded by a 2012 federal law that changed how flood insurance is administered.
Liguori said many of those affected by the storm weren’t used to turning to others for help. “When they start to feel that loss of control, it’s very, very difficult for them to pick up the phone and say, ‘I need help,’ “ Liguori said.
She emphasized that it’s normal to require counseling after a personal loss, whether of a loved one or a home.
“We need to stress that this is not about mental illness -- this is about having a normal response,” she said.
She pointed out that the federal support for residents to rent homes will be ending early next year. “I think that is going add to the level of stress for families that we need to cognizant of,” Liguori said.
Lumpkin compared emotional damage from Sandy to the physical harm caused if a storm causes a tree to fall on a person’s leg.
“It’s just like a broken leg,” Lumpkin said. “It’s something that can be fixed and you should get help for.”
While state and federal laws have been changed to require that mental health be treated the same as physical health, residents’ attitudes have yet to change.
“We’re talking about changing the attitudes of nearly everyone in this country,” Lumpkin said. He noted that medical science could now detect the changes that occur in the brain due to physical stress, as well as those that result from emotional stress. “These two are so intertwined.”
He wants to residents to understand that others have benefited from counseling and that, “it’s not just me, it’s anybody who’s been exposed” to the storm. “If they reached out and they got better, then I can reach out and get better.”
Lumpkin encouraged officials with other foundations to realize that there will be an ongoing need in the state to support behavioral health. “The recovery goes on for years,” he said.
Panel moderator Steve Adubato and Don Dalesio, general manager for Townsquare Media Monmouth/Ocean -- which operates several radio stations, including FM 101.5 -- commented on the mixed legacy of the phrase “Jersey Strong” for residents struggling to overcome the storm’s lasting effects.
“Jersey Strong raised the bar on already high expectations,” for residents who haven’t been able to return to their houses, said Dalesio.
Lumpkin said the phrase should be used to refer to a broader message.
“It’s not about the individual being strong,” he said. “We need to convey the message that our communities can be strong,” particularly when residents rely on one another.
Mental Health Association in New Jersey President Carolyn Beauchamp, whose organization has helped administer the Help and Healing program, said the broader public needs to learn more about the physical and emotional effects of the storm, so that they can recognize signs of problems in their neighbors and family.
Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty has found a simple way to encourage residents to open up about their emotional wellbeing, without making them uncomfortable.
Instead of asking about how they feel, Doherty said he asks: “We just want to hear your story -- tell us your Sandy story.”
Hope and Healing has helped residents with varying levels of emotional needs receive appropriate levels of support. For those who don’t need professional counseling but do need help, weekly support groups have formed along the Shore.
Benevy, who works for Barnabas Health’s Institute for Prevention, said it’s important not to “pathologize” the ongoing needs of residents, considering how normal it’s been to seek emotional support. Help and Healing has had contact with more than 300,000 residents, including 33,000 in Ocean County. “The volume speaks to the magnitude of what we’re still seeing out there,” Benevy said.
Hope and Healing funding is scheduled to end early in 2014 and the organization has been seeking private funds to continue its work. The help line for New Jersey Hope and Healing is (877) 294-4357.