NYC First Lady Sends Mental Health Experts to Puerto Rico

Chirlane McCray during the announcement of the city’s latest effort to help Puerto Rico. (Photo via El Diario)

Nearly six months after Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico, New York City remains committed in its efforts to help in the recovery process. On Tuesday, first lady Chirlane McCray traveled to the island heading a team of mental health experts.

Hours before, during an event at the Hispanic Federation, McCray announced that she would be accompanied by Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Dr. Herminia Palacio, and that on the island she would meet with mayors and other authorities.

The first lady emphasized that the deployment of mental health professionals seeks to address a consequence of the devastation provoked by María that might be overlooked: the trauma and psychological harm experienced by those affected.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife pointed out that around 150,000 homes and businesses in Puerto Rico, or almost 10 percent of the island, remain without electricity. She also reminded the audience that along with their homes, Puerto Ricans also lost memories; along with jobs went their livelihoods, and along with their schools went their children’s education centers.

“Stress from the disaster can leave lasting effects,” said McCray, who leads the city’s efforts in mental health and substance abuse.

The 12-person team of mental and behavioral health experts from the city’s Health Department will remain in Puerto Rico for two weeks. Their mission is to train 3,000 teachers and education staff, as well as social workers throughout the island, on psychological first aid skills, stress management and self-care for students who have experienced trauma and emotional challenges post-María.

The plan includes training up to 1,000 social workers on mental and behavioral health issues to help Puerto Rico’s Department of Education continue the trainings in the future.

The president of the Hispanic Federation, José Calderón, said that between November 2017 and January 2018 the Puerto Rican government’s crisis hotline has received more than 3,000 calls from people with suicidal thoughts. This represents a 246 percent increase compared to the same period the previous year, said Calderón.

“We’re so grateful that our city’s first lady has taken a leading role to support and shine a light on the mental health needs of our neighbors on the island,” said Calderón.

The mental health personnel deployment responds to an express request from the Puerto Rico Department of Education.

McCray also announced that the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City will donate $100,000 to UNIDOS, the disaster relief and recovery program run by the Hispanic Federation, to increase mental health services in the island’s community health centers. The Hispanic Federation, for its part, vowed to match the grant, bringing the total to $200,000.

McCray and Palacio plan to meet with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, Loíza Mayor Julia Nazario and public health and education officials. They will seek to identify existing service challenges and gaps that may be addressed with additional technical resources from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Palacio said that the professionals deployed to Puerto Rico are Spanish-speakers and will help teachers and social workers recognize the signs and symptoms of post-disaster trauma and stress, both on themselves and the students.

“It takes time to realize that you need help,” said Palacio, who will remain in Puerto Rico with McCray until Thursday.

Since Hurricane María slammed Puerto Rico in September, New York City has offered help to Puerto Ricans who have left the island in search of a new start or a transition.

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