Experts Concerned About Mental Health In Puerto Rico, 80% Still Without Power

By Victoria Kim 10/26/17

Public health experts worry that Puerto Ricans may face damaging mental health effects after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

man holding a sign about power outages in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Much of Puerto Rico still lacks power and clean water after the island was ravaged by Hurricane Maria in late September. It’s now been a little over one month after the Category 4 storm tore through the island with 155 mph winds, yet 80% of residents are without electricity, and 30% without clean water. The death toll just hit 51.

And with the lack of basic services, residents are succumbing to deteriorating health—including mental health. 

Public Health Professor Shao Lin of the University at Albany, State University of New York, gave her take on the dire situation in an essay for The Conversation, given her background in studying the health effects of disasters like terrorist attacks and hurricanes.

Lin cited her observations of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which was responsible for 147 total deaths between the Northeast United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. 

Though Sandy wreaked a fraction of the damage Puerto Rico has seen, Lin says it gives a glimpse of the mental health effects that Puerto Ricans will face in the coming months and years.

Among New Yorkers affected by Sandy—parts of Staten Island, Queens and lower Manhattan got the worst of it—some went without power for up to 14 days. This resulted in more emergency room visits for anxiety and mood disorders. And most of these hospital visits “involved substance abuse” which Lin says was “especially true during the power outage.”

“There were about 200 emergency department cases of substance abuse during Sandy and the blackout period, about four times as many as usual,” said Lin.

In some cases, Shao Lin’s research observed that the mental health effects of Sandy lasted anywhere from three months to as long as one year after the disaster, depending on the region.

Lin explains why these effects can last so long, and stir up anxiety and depression, after a person survives a natural disaster and has to pick up the pieces after losing so much.

Loss of power is just the beginning of the residents’ problems—this in turn causes a “loss of essential services for communities such as access to food, clean water, transportation and communication,” Lin writes. 

Among people who already harbored underlying mental health problems, a disaster can exacerbate them.

Puerto Rican officials hope to restore power to half of the island by mid-November, and hope to reach 95% of the island by year’s end. 

But in the meantime, Lin emphasizes that “effective responses by different levels of government agencies are critical after a natural disaster.”

“Public health officials need to monitor consequent mental health cases,” urges Lin. “A medical monitoring surveillance program to follow up with the long-term health impacts would also be beneficial to the local residents.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr