Counseling Helps Sandy Victims Cope With Disaster

$600,000 in funding to meet mental health needs in New York and New Jersey

YMCA counselor Amanda Wexler works with first-graders at P.S. 39 in Staten Island, N.Y., as part of an AmeriCares-sponsored counseling program for children affected by Sandy.

"Mental health services are often one of the most significant unmet needs after a disaster of this magnitude,"

—Garrett Ingoglia, AmeriCares VP of Emergency Response

When Hurricane Sandy slammed into Staten Island, N.Y., the force of the tidal surge knocked houses off their foundations and filled homes with several feet of water. In some cases, children even had to swim to safety – the floodwaters quickly rising above their heads. Months later, parents worry about the toll the harrowing experience has taken on the smallest storm victims.

AmeriCares and the YMCA of Greater New York recently launched a counseling program at two public elementary schools in the hard-hit South Beach and Midland Beach neighborhoods to help children cope with trauma and anxiety. The 12-week program at P.S. 39 and P.S. 52 is run by counselors from the YMCA of Greater New York’s Counseling Services Branch with funding from AmeriCares Sandy Relief Program.

The wreckage along the waterfront in Union Beach, N.J., months after Sandy flooded homes and businesses along the Jersey Shore.
The wreckage along the waterfront in Union Beach, N.J., months after Sandy flooded homes and businesses along the Jersey Shore.

“Mental health services are often one of the most significant unmet needs after a disaster of this magnitude,” said AmeriCares Vice President of Emergency Response Garrett Ingoglia. “We saw it upstate New York after Hurricane Irene flooded small towns, and in Japan after the 2011 tsunami. If we can give kids the tools to cope with a traumatic experience, research has shown we can prevent long-term mental health issues.”

Counseling for storm victims is a key component of AmeriCares Sandy relief program. Six months after the hurricane, we have awarded more than $600,000 in funding to meet the mental health needs of New York and New Jersey residents. Studies of children directly affected by disasters have revealed more than one-quarter of children exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress 18 months after a storm.

Helping Children Heal

Jacqueline Fiore, executive director of the YMCA’s Counseling Services Branch in Staten Island, said parents overwhelmed by cleaning up the flood damage in the first few months had little time for anything else.

“A lot of families were focused on primary needs,” she said. “The emotional component was on the backburner.”

One child colored a storm-hit house red to show how much storms frighten her.
One child colored a storm-hit house red to show how much storms frighten her.

But as parents like Rimma, a mother of two from South Beach, learned about the program, they were anxious to give their children an outlet to talk about the experience. About 80 children are currently enrolled, including her two boys ages 7 and 8. The youngest was afraid to return home, fearing another wave would wash their condo away; her oldest wants to the family to move.

“I just want them to know they are safe no matter what,” she said.

To help parents identify trauma symptoms in their children, AmeriCares is working with Maimonides Infants and Children’s Hospital to provide training for pediatricians in Brooklyn, N.Y. Physicians in the program will learn how to identify post-disaster mental health issues in young patients affected by Sandy.

Training for Counselors

Many of the AmeriCares grants support training for mental health professionals working one-on-one with storm victims.

Michael DeCotis, a guidance counselor at Red Bank Regional High School in New Jersey, was one of 60 counselors who participated in an AmeriCares-sponsored training program in February.
Michael DeCotis, a guidance counselor at Red Bank Regional High School in New Jersey, was one of 60 counselors who participated in an AmeriCares-sponsored training program in February.
  • A recent $155,000 grant to CPC Behavioral Healthcare funds psychiatric services for storm victims in New Jersey as well as staff training in mental health first aid. The clinicians trained will conduct monthly seminars to teach teachers, police officers and employees of local nonprofit organizations to recognize the early onset of mental health problems.
  • AmeriCares is working with the Traumatic Loss Coalitions for Youth and Young Adults Program in New Jersey to increase the ranks of qualified counselors to assist Sandy victims. AmeriCares awarded the organization a $98,000 grant to train 60 counselors in the specialized skills needed to provide crisis counseling for students and their families, as well as to fund 3,000 hours of counseling services. About 1,000 people – children as well as their parents and siblings – are expected to benefit.

Risa Clay, Principal of Red Bank Regional High School where 80 students were displaced by the hurricane, sent her guidance counselors to the AmeriCares-sponsored training session in February to augment the services of the school’s counseling clinic. Many of the teens affected live in Union Beach, N.J., a working-class community where some families without flood insurance cannot afford to rebuild. The disruption of the hurricane was particularly hard for the senior class, still grieving the loss of two classmates who died suddenly due to medical problems unrelated to the storm.

 “I think for the first time they began to realize, ‘I could lose everything in the blink of an eye,’” Clay said.

With support from trained crisis counselors, the youngest storm victims will learn coping mechanisms to handle their fears and feel safe once again.