By John Burton
Recovery from the emotional impact of Sandy is expected to take a long time, according to mental health professionals.
For many, life is beginning to return to something resembling normal. The power is back on, kids are back in school, homes are being straightened up, people are going about their lives.
For others, however, nothing about their lives seems normal. Homes and personal effects are gone. They are living in shelters with no idea of what the future may bring.
“What we’re seeing and what we’ll continue to see, because this is only the beginning,” is disbelief, stress, trauma in many people, said Wendy DePedro, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County in Shrewsbury. “And then we know – down the road – we’re going to be seeing a huge increase in cases of post-traumatic stress, because this is a traumatic event.”
Lynn Miller, a disaster response crisis counselor and retired director of Monmouth County Division of Social Services, has been working with those who find themselves living in shelters, in Wall and at Monmouth Park racetrack in Oceanport.
Mental health professionals are available to help those who have been traumatized by the recent events.
“People here are very calm,” she said about the racetrack where approximately 260 people are being housed.
“I think they’re past the shock stage, they’re past the high-pitched emotional state.
“They’re saying they want to move on with their lives,” Miller said.
But under that surface calm, Miller said, “I think people are afraid. … They don’t know where they’re going to go next.”
As a counselor, her role is to listen more than to offer advice at this point in the process, she said.
“We’re just trying to talk to people, to take the edge off what they’re feeling,” she said. “We don’t have the answers for them but we just allow them to express their emotions and tell their stories.”
The stories have been compelling.
Miller said she heard about a family of five – parents, teenage and young adult children and pets – that was stranded in their small attic for 11 hours as rushing waters rose. Police told them to stay put until the water receded, Miller said.
“Each story is so unique, it’s like reading a novel of short stories,” she said.
Later some will begin suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
“That takes a while,” she noted. “Right now you’re seeing people trying to survive.”
“In spite of their circumstances, what I’m hearing over and over and over again is ‘It could have been worse, we’re still here,’” said Denise Wegeman, a licensed clinical social worker.
Wegeman, a counselor at Manasquan High School, has been hearing people’s stories about their losses and the struggle to move on. “Really, the only comfort you can afford them is you’re still here, the most important thing is you’re still here,” Wegeman said.
She said people are responding to that message. “I think it boils down to the basics, to what is actually important to them,” Wegeman said. It is “realizing that everything else – although it’s really nice to have nice things – it’s just we are here. Are we healthy? Where can we go from here?”
People will be dealing with this for quite a while, Wegeman said.
She is constantly reminding those she counsels that “this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.” Dealing with the trauma has to be addressed in increments. “What you have to do is encourage people to take it one day at a time, not to get too overwhelmed.”
She recommends people keep a notebook with lists of things that have to be done daily and other important information. Those with children should explain the situation and stay calm, she advised. For younger children, their access to media images should be limited and adults should be mindful of what they are saying within earshot.
“When you have a tragedy or loss of this magnitude, you will find there will be more alcohol and drug use,” Wegeman said. “Unfortunately, people are going to medicate, because they’re trying to deal with it.”
“The road to recovery is going to be long and it’s going to be hard for many of us,” DePedro said.
The Mental Health Association of Monmouth County will concentrate on providing treatment for victims and is working with other not-for-profits, including the Monmouth County Office of Addiction Services, to identify counselors willing to volunteer their time.
People will be feeling disbelief, irritability, sadness, depression, a sense of powerlessness, and that’s going to be seen all across the socio-economic strata, DePedro said. “This is a bipartisan disaster.
“What we’re going to need to see is supportive counseling, where we bring people back to the level of functioning that they had prior to this disaster,” DePedro said. “That’s really the key thing.”
Another key thing is asking for help if needed, DePedro, Wegeman and Miller each stressed.
Information about mental health services is available by contacting the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County at 119 Avenue of the Commons, Suite 5, Shrewsbury, 732-542-6422 or by visiting www.mentalhealthmonmouth.org.
Crisis counseling is available by calling 732-923-6999.