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Emergency Response to Hurricane Irma and Maria

by International Medical Corps
Emergency Response to Hurricane Irma and Maria
Coralys, pre-COVID, with one of our participants.
Coralys, pre-COVID, with one of our participants.

During this difficult time worldwide,” says Coralys, our Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Coordinator in Puerto Rico, “our team has developed new and innovative strategies to address the most pressing needs related to mental health and, more specifically, suicide prevention.

One of those innovative strategies is a new series of webinars which adapt training to the physical distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic. With generous support from GlobalGiving, these webinars provide culturally responsive information about suicide prevention, including risk factors, stress management and crisis intervention strategies. The webinars also aim to reduce the stigma associated with mental health challenges and to combat myths and misinformation.

International Medical Corps’ webinar series has already reached 142 community members, 26 mental health patients and 165 health workers. Following one of the webinars, one of our participants stated, “it is so relieving to know that I can now do something when a friend or family member is contemplating suicide.

While the intention behind the series is to ensure continuity of services, Coralys considers the greatest challenge to be, reaching the two most vulnerable populations during quarantine, older adults and walk-in emergency patients who were affected by the initial lockdown of health facilities.” Our team partnered with local churches and other religious organizations to reach older adults, and the webinars helped staff at the walk-in clinics provide patients with the skills they need to address their emotions and prevent crises such as suicide.

Coralys explains that, “By working collaboratively, we have identified needs, provided guidance, and referrals to participants to current available mental health services” – and helped to save precious lives.

We thank the GlobalGiving community for continuing to support mental health and psychosocial support in Puerto Rico.

Pre-COVID at Hospital San Juan Capestrano Humacao.
Pre-COVID at Hospital San Juan Capestrano Humacao.
Coralys and our MHPSS team host an online webinar.
Coralys and our MHPSS team host an online webinar.
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Gathering information from groups and individuals.
Gathering information from groups and individuals.

After the devastation caused by Hurricanes Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico, International Medical Corps helps to improve mental health and reduce stigma by providing training opportunities and facilitating stress relief and emotion management sessions for both professionals and affected community members. We are also addressing an urgent need for suicide prevention.

The Línea Primera Ayuda Sicosocial, the only mental health support hotline available on the island, noted an 83% increase in calls to their suicide prevention hotline between January 2017 and January 2018. The Department of Health in Puerto Rico also reported that there was a 29% increase in suicides from 2016 to 2017 – compared to a global increase that was nearly negligible at 0.73%.

As a result, with generous support from the GlobalGiving Foundation and its community of donors, we will facilitate urgently needed suicide prevention programming in Puerto Rico.

Our teams in Puerto Rico plan to train health personnel and community members on suicide prevention strategies and how to cope with suicidal ideations. The trainingwill include both role play simulations and group exercises and cover topics like the normalization of mental health issues, myths, risk factors, signs that someone may be suicidal, crisis intervention strategies, stigma against mental health and referral mechanisms.

Following the training, we will support referrals for higher levels of care and professional support to help people know where and how to connect individuals in need with increased care.

Our approach to suicide prevention will include supporting arts-based activities in coordination with local facilities and organizations, like Centro Medico Hospitals and the Servicio de Tratimiento Residencial para Adolescentes.

The arts-based activities will help patients receiving psychiatric treatment learn how to manage their emotions and use positive coping skills, instead of turning to suicide. At the culmination of the program, we will host an art exhibition at a museum in San Juan to raise awareness of the needs surrounding suicide among patients, community leaders and local organizations.

International Medical Corps thanks the GlobalGiving Foundation and its community of donors for supporting our response to mental health needs in Puerto Rico.

Assessing mental health after the storms.
Assessing mental health after the storms.
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Sites assessed per region.
Sites assessed per region.

In September 2018, Hurricane Maria left a trail of devastation across Puerto Rico, resulting in a loss of lives, limited access to water and electricity, and damage to houses and infrastructure.

Throughout our programming and response efforts, we noticed that Puerto Ricans were experiencing mental health challenges in addition to loss of homes, possessions and livelihoods. The signs included, but were not limited to feelings of loss, fear, grief, hopelessness, isolation, anger, distress, nervousness, and uncertainty, especially in areas with fewer resources. 

International Medical Corps undertook an assessment to document these mental health challenges and make evidence-based recommendations for programming. Documenting why we do what we do along with lessons learned during an intervention is a critical component of our learning and our success. Our new knowledge makes it possible for us to make valuable contributions to the collective knowledge base of the humanitarian community.

We found that the population’s mental health was affected by unmet basic needs, poor access to medical services and a lack of safe places to live, among other socioeconomic issues. The findings and recommendations from our assessment have led to us taking a community-based approach in planning. Our staff facilitate awareness sessions to improve coping skills in a crisis and when experiencing strong emotions, support suicide prevention, and make referrals to higher levels of care as needed.

In addition to broadcasting radio shows, as described in our last update, International Medical Corps’ staff has distributed flow charts of the health centers and hospitals with mental health services and counseling hospitals to providers, to strengthen the referral network. We have also facilitated training on an approach known as psychological first aid for 136 community leaders, school teachers and community health workers in Puerto Rico, which teaches both professionals and non-professionals how to provide compassionate emotional and practical support to people under stress. 

Despite this work, more is needed, to:

  • Strengthen suicide prevention efforts among youth and older adults
  • Identify referral pathways for patients experiencing complex mental health challenges
  • Improve data collection tools, documentation and reporting
  • Advocate for training for appropriate care for vulnerable and at-risk groups, including people living with disabilities and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence

International Medical Corps thanks the GlobalGiving community for its generous support of our mental health programming in Puerto Rico.

Our team preparing for awareness sessions.
Our team preparing for awareness sessions.
Learning coping mechanisms during focus groups.
Learning coping mechanisms during focus groups.
Interviewing community members for the assessment.
Interviewing community members for the assessment.
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Team being hosted on Nueva Vida Radio.
Team being hosted on Nueva Vida Radio.

When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm in September 2017, just weeks following Hurricane Irma, the devastation included the loss of homes, healthcare facilities and critical infrastructure.

Hurricane Maria also devastated the communication networks. Not only was it difficult to obtain insight about the effects of the hurricanes, but the lack of communication negatively affected the dissemination of recovery information. Our teams noticed that radio had become the best, and sometimes only, way to spread important information to community members.

To expand the reach of our mental health programming, particularly in hard-to-reach areas, International Medical Corps began hosting radio shows in April 2019 to enhance recovery efforts and prepare communities for the 2019 hurricane season. International Medical Corps strategically chose six radio stations that had the highest broadcast reach throughout the island, allowing us to reach a wide age range.

Our radio show hosts included our mental health staff and several guest experts. These guests possessed vast experience in the mental health field, completed psychological first aid training and participated in emergency response teams directly following the storms.

We recorded a series of 21 half-hour shows and three-minute commercials that gave information on stress reduction, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, emergency preparedness and available mental health support. Since April 2019, we reached some 2.8 million Puerto Ricans through our radio programming over a period of three months.

“I had many feelings while doing the radio shows,” said Pedro, one of International Medical Corps’ mental health and psychosocial support assistants. “I felt joy, anxiousness and like I was being helpful all at once. It felt really good to have this platform to be able to help my fellow Puerto Ricans with their mental health, especially after the impact Hurricane Maria had on the island.”

We are currently collaborating with the Department of Health and local health facilities to refer community members to the resources that were mentioned on the radio shows.

Thanks to donations, like those from GlobalGiving community, International Medical Corps is able to contribute to the continued and sustained recovery of survivors, even after the emergency is over.

Recording about mental health and preparedness.
Recording about mental health and preparedness.
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Staff meeting with Pastor Miguel's community
Staff meeting with Pastor Miguel's community

On September 20 in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria affected some 3.9 million people when it made landfall as a Category 5 storm. Following the devastating storm, International Medical Corps met with leaders of the affected areas, such as the Pájaros community in Bayamón on the northeastern part of the island, to determine how our team could help them to build back better.

One of those leaders, Pastor Miguel, told our teams that while the local church had supplied much of the water and food to the community in the immediate aftermath of the storm, he had observed isolation, powerlessness, helplessness and financial loss within his community. Our teams began working directly with members at Pastor Miguel’s church through a series of workshops to combat loneliness and prepare for future disasters.

Following the loss of her husband as a result of the hurricane, “I was in a state of hopelessness,” workshop participant, Celeste, told our team at one of the meetings. Celeste struggled to cope with the destruction of her home, loss of clean water and crippling loss of power – all while mourning her husband. “It was the worst experience in my life,” she said.

Another participant, Juanita, had lost one of her sources of income because she could no longer rent out her home after the pro-longed major power losses. Through the workshops provided by International Medical Corps, participants and community leaders, like Pastor Miguel, learned about topics such as managing emotions, stress management and emergency preparedness during disasters. These workshops gave those affected the resources to heal and help others when they felt that the government had forgotten about their psychosocial needs.

Juanita tells us, “the skills I learned in the workshop will help me to help people.” Juanita feels confident that if another hurricane were to hit her community, she would be much better prepared to help – not just herself, but members of her community, too. “International Medical Corps has given me hope of changing my community for the better,” explains Celeste. Meanwhile, Pastor Miguel plans to use his new knowledge to establish a center of psychosocial support for future catastrophic events.

Thanks to donations, like those from GlobalGiving, International Medical Corps is able to contribute to the continued and sustained recovery of survivors – like Celeste and Juanita – even after the emergency is over.

Juanita, participant from Bayamon, left smiling
Juanita, participant from Bayamon, left smiling
Team members facilitated discussions on emotions
Team members facilitated discussions on emotions
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Organization Information

International Medical Corps

Location: Los Angeles, CA - USA
Website:
Project Leader:
Kelli Maddock
Los Angeles, CA United States
$23,585 raised of $50,000 goal
 
113 donations
$26,415 to go
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