Puerto Rico Mental Health Crisis on the Rise Six Months After Hurricane Maria

Featured on The Weather Channel. Author: Ada Carr

Mental health issues have made a concerning rise in Puerto Rico as residents continue to grapple with massive losses and crippled infrastructure six months after their island home was devastated by Hurricane Maria. 

I sit and cry all day,” 42-year-old Magdaliz Medina, who has been without power or water all this time, told USA Today. “I was depressed before the storm. Maria made it worse.”

In 2017, 253 Puerto Ricans committed suicide, according to a report released by the local government’s Commission for the Prevention of Suicide. Twenty suicides occurred in December, three months after the storm's landfall. Roughly 86 percent of the deceased were men and 14 percent were women. 

The island nation was already battling surging mental health issues fafter a decade-long recession that left many unemployed and divided families due to people moving away. Maria’s blow and the devastation left behind only added to the distress. 

Many are still without the resources they need to resume their lives. Resident Victor Manuel Belen Santiago lost his mother, Zoraida Santiago Torres, in February after the lack of power prevented her from using an oxygen machine.

A suicide prevention hotline center near San Juan told USA Today it received up to 600 calls daily from people who reach out to discuss their losses, economic situations, or family departures for the U.S. mainland. They are also receiving an alarming influx of people discussing thought-out suicide plans. 

In January, the hotline saw calls related to suicide double from 2,046 in August to 4,548. Attempts also jumped from 782 to 1,075 within the same timeframe.

Mental health issues can arise during power outages due to the stress of being cut off from essentially everything: from food to transportation,and  life-saving devices, according to the Kim Foundation, an organization dedicated to mental illness awareness and suicide prevention. Additionally, outages mean people are unable to communicate with others, which can cause feelings of isolation. Living in the dark can trigger fear and anxiety.  

Ponce Health Sciences University Vice President Kenira Thompson told USA Today that many residents have been coming to the institution’s mental health center with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts triggered by the storm. The six-month mark after Maria saw a surge in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, in addition to the thoughts of self-harm. 

“We’re very concerned with the suicide rates,” she added. “It’s nerve-racking.”

Health professionals’ concerns are rising as the June 1 start of hurricane season approaches. 

“When it starts raining, they have episodes of anxiety because they think their house is going to flood again,” clinical psychologist Dr. Carlos del Toro Ortiz told the New York Times in a November 2017 article. “They have heart palpitations, sweating, catastrophic thoughts. They think ‘I’m going to drown,’ ‘I’m going to die,’ ‘I’m going to lose everything.’”

Recovery on the island has gone slowly. Remaining shelters on the island shut down on March 9. Residents who were still homeless were given a different form of temporary government-funded housing. 

Research conducted by University of Puerto Rico Behavioral Sciences Research Institute Director Glorisa Canino showed Puerto Rican residents who escaped to the mainland U.S. tended to exhibit fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression than those on the island, NBC News reports. 

“When you adjust certain characteristics like unemployment and poverty, which are drastically higher on the island, you see that the rates of depression and anxiety are lower on the island,” she told the network. 

Hurricane Maria made a Category 4 landfall in the town of Yabucoa on Sept. 20, 2017, packing maximum sustained winds of 155 mph. The monstrous hurricane killed 64 people on the U.S. territory, according to the Puerto Rican government, but in the months that followed, investigations by news organizations concluded the death toll was likely at least 1,000.

Islandwide, the lights were supposed to come back on by mid-December, according to a promise made weeks earlier by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

More than 89,000 remain without power in Puerto Rico as of Monday. 

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