Virgin Islands Struggle With Mental Health Crisis After 2017 Hurricanes

By Lindsey Weedston 05/01/19

The children of the U.S. Virgin Islands were deeply affected by the trauma of surviving two massive hurricanes.

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The islands were hit by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes in September 2017. Maciej Czekajewski | Dreamstime.com

The U.S. Virgin Islands are still struggling to recover from the two devastating hurricanes that hit them along with Puerto Rico and the Southeastern continental U.S. in 2017, according to a report by NPR.

While they slowly rebuild their island’s infrastructure, schools, homes and businesses, the population is also dealing with a mental health crisis fueled by the stress of disrupted government services, lost jobs and severely damaged homes.

Children appear to be having a particularly difficult time. The hurricanes damaged many of the island’s school buildings, forcing them to resort to two four-hour school sessions each school day in order to house and continue education for the kids with half the classrooms.

This change appears to have severely disrupted the typical education process for the children of the Virgin Islands, resulting in behavioral problems and widespread mental health issues. The educational disruption comes on top of the initial trauma of surviving two Category 5 hurricanes.

"We see... regression in behaviors, especially with our little ones who had been potty-trained, reverted to using diapers," says mental health counselor Vincentia Paul-Constantin. "We see a lot of frustration, cognitive impairment, hopelessness and despair” among older children, she added.

Researchers have found that 60 percent of adults on the island now suffer from depressive symptoms and/or PTSD, as well as 40 percent of children. According to the report, over 20 percent of students in grades 7-12 reported suicidal thoughts and 1 in 12 had attempted suicide.

According to Virgin Islands educators, the past two years have seen a large spike in children acting up in the classroom and an increase in defiant behavior. This has continued even after the schools finally returned to their normal schedule in October 2018.

"They show up in defiance, actual defiance to authority. We have children who are sleeping in the middle of the day,” said Cancryn Junior High School Principal Lisa Ford. “You try to wake them up, they become angry. And maybe that's what we're seeing — a lot of anger and defiance."

The culture on the U.S. Virgin Islands places a lot of shame on mental illness, making people reluctant to seek help. At the same time, there were already very few mental health professionals available. The local government only employed one full-time and one part-time psychiatrist for the entire island, and they and private mental health professionals have reportedly been overwhelmed by a new demand for care.

To help combat this problem, Governor Albert Bryan recently declared a mental health state of emergency in order to expedite the recruitment of psychological experts.

"This is a kind of 'cry in the dark' kind of community," Bryan told NPR. "A lot of that is driven by the stigma. You wouldn't ostracize somebody who had high blood pressure. Why would you ostracize somebody who has some kind of personality disorder?"

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at NotSorryFeminism.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindseyWeedston

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