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Help the Helper: Building Mental Health and Psychosocial Capacity

  • January 14, 2019
  • Emergency Response Blog, Health Initiatives, Health Services, Mental Health, Mental Health Initiative (MHI)
Alexia Suarez and Ivelisse Morales

Alexia Suarez and Ivelisse Morales

Alexia and Ivelisse are Puerto Rico are MHPSS Managers in Puerto Rico

Even before Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the island’s mental health was fragile, and available services were not enough to meet the island’s needs. More than a year after the storm, residents are still struggling—some aid has stopped coming, and the international public eye has turned to new emergencies. Now, Puerto Ricans are facing the hard reality of post-disaster life on an island already suffering from a financial crisis. This situation provides fertile ground for mental and psychosocial health issues—especially in our elderly population.

Puerto Rico is an aging island. According to the 2017 United States Census Bureau, 30 percent of Puerto Rico’s population is over 55 years of age, and 24 percent are over 60 years old. Families are having fewer children, and many young people are leaving the island. The World Health Organization reports that more than 20 percent of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental or neurological disorder—most commonly, dementia, depression and anxiety disorders. In the last two years, 51 percent of the suicides on Puerto Rico were among elderly people. This trend is alarming.

Many health workers in Puerto Rico face a heavy burden each day—one with complex situations and limited resource to care for the elderly’s unique needs. Often, mental health conditions overlap with physical health issues, interfering with health workers’ ability to care for their patients. Constantly faced with this difficult scenario, caregivers are at risk for burnout, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue—compromising their ability to care for themselves, their families and the people they serve.  

Americares is committed to providing ongoing services and training—including coping, resilience and psychological first aid—to increase the capacity of health workers to address mental health and psychosocial needs. One year after the storm, we have trained more than 2,700 health workers and first responders to recognize and address common post-disaster symptoms. Our mobile medical clinics provided care to 1,700 survivors, and our aid has reached 65,000 people in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

Now, in partnership with Puerto Rico’s Old Age Advocacy Office, Americares will make training specifically addressing the mental health and psychosocial needs of the elderly available to service providers in each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities. By training service providers caring for the elderly in psychological first aid and suicide prevention, identification and management, as well as resiliency and coping workshops, we are increasing their skills, making them more resilient and better prepared to care for the elderly.

Americares knows the importance of incorporating resources addressing the specific needs and circumstances of the elderly into national and community emergency plan protocols. In addition to addressing mental health and psychosocial needs in-the-moment, our team is working to prepare service providers for future emergencies or disasters. We are building health care capacity by empowering local service providers and the communities they serve.

In Puerto Rico, health and psychosocial workers are themselves survivors of Hurricane Maria, exposed to the same devastation as the people they serve. Americares respects their devotion and is committed to fostering their greatest potential with more skills to handle stress and trauma among Hurricane Maria survivors—while managing their own needs. With these services, health workers, psychosocial workers and emergency responders will nurture the wellbeing, dignity and joy of the elderly—and themselves.