The catastrophic destruction of property and psyche on Staten Island wrought by Hurricane Sandy last October devastated thousands of our residents. The monster waves and tidal surges that overwhelmed communities on the Island’s East and South Shores destroyed 500 homes, sweeping some completely off their foundations, and sweeping away homeowners as well. Of the 43 New York City deaths related to Hurricane Sandy, 23 occurred on Staten Island, more than in any other borough.
We know that children and adolescents exposed to disasters such as this Superstorm, including even those whose families are not personally impacted, are at great risk of developing symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can dramatically affect the child’s ability to function at home, at school, and with peers. We also know that intervention by qualified mental health professionals can head off or alleviate the syndrome, and that is part of our agency’s mission.
Ironically but fortunately, the tragic aftermath of the storm gave the SIMHS new opportunities to mobilize and address the needs of our clients and others who suffered severe impacts. The fact that we are Staten Island’s “go-to” agency for the highest quality mental health and related services for children – based on our more than 100 years of experience and achievements in the field – spurred private, foundation, and government funders to provide immediate grants that enabled us to reach out and begin to heal children and families. The predominant beneficiaries of services set in motion by these grants were children living on the South Shore whose lives were so disrupted when Hurricane Sandy created unprecedented turmoil in and out of their homes.
For example, the SIMHS was one of the first agencies recruited as a primary provider of crisis counseling for children, adults and families through Project Hope, a city/state/FEMA partnership; a federal Emergency Head Start grant enabled us to reopen our Dongan Hills Head Start Center, providing urgently needed counseling and other services to 57 preschoolers who had been displaced and traumatized; utilizing two private grants, we relaunched our Summer Therapeutic Program, with counseling, education, and recreation services benefitting 60 children ages 4 to 12 who suffered the storm’s ill effects.
Still, one of the most serious and life-threatening of the hurricane’s trauma-inducing impacts has been a dramatic increase in substance abuse among the Island’s preteens, teens, and young adults. Some background: For the last decade, Staten Island has been “Ground Zero” for adolescent substance abuse, with the highest rates of preteen and teenage alcohol and drug use – including OTC and prescription drugs – in New York City and State. This rate has truly reached epidemic proportions, with one death every nine days due to prescription drug overdoses. Adolescent substance abuse was particularly high on the Island’s South Shore even before it was battered by the Superstorm, but in the past year, the problem has escalated even further.
Why? The psychological impact on youth and families who lived in the hardest-hit areas of Staten Island has been devastating. Children reported seeing dead bodies floating past their windows. Families spent the night trapped in their houses or standing in water up to their necks. Individuals tried to swim to safety, and scores had to be rescued by the National Guard. As a consequence of these events, young people were more likely to experience PTSD, with its attendant nightmares, depression, aggression, acting out, and flashbacks. To cope with these emotional stressors, they often turned to alcohol and/or drugs and engaged in high-risk behaviors to numb their feelings. They also put themselves at great risk of developing ongoing substance abuse addictions.
As one of the only children’s agencies in our borough licensed by the New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services, in support of our reputation as a long-time, respected provider of effective substance abuse services exclusively for disconnected and at-risk adolescents and young adults through our Teen Center, and as a successful provider of services for challenged youth transitioning into adulthood, the SIMHS is in the forefront of designing new “rescue” services for this growing population of storm-trouble youth.
We are in the process of applying for funding to develop an innovative, one-year program that will work intensively with close to 100 youngsters, ages 14-24, living on the Island’s Sandy-impacted South Shore who are exhibiting symptoms of stress-related substance abuse. The program would use the evidence-based, TIP (Transition to Independence Process) model that helps at-risk and high-risk youth function effectively within their communities by targeting the domains of school, work, peers and family, and helping the youth make the right choices by using the resources around them.
The targeted population of young people have voiced motivation for change, but immobilized by their reactions to the Superstorm, have not effectively engaged in any of the existing local substance abuse prevention or treatment programs. They do not successfully use available community resources that could provide them with healthy and positive alternatives, and they often begin to fail in school, a precursor to dropping out or unemployment.
Unlike most treatment models that focus on problems and weaknesses, the TIP approach builds on the strengths and interests of each participating youth. A key element of treatment is the Life Coach, who works with each youth on an intensive and individual basis to help develop and implement a feasible plan to reach personally identified goals. Recruiting available human resources, including family members, peers, significant others (school teachers, coaches, etc.), and other community resources/services, the Life Coach builds “virtual” teams focused on helping the young person move beyond the trauma and towards accomplishing his or her goals, which might include college, employment or vocational training.
The Life Coach would make personal contact with each young person, most likely in the home, or at an agreed-upon community location, often after school and on weekends. Working in tandem with the Life Coach, an SIMHS substance abuse specialist would employ evidence-based therapeutic techniques that are separate and distinct from adult services. These adolescent-centered techniques recognize alcoholism and substance abuse as potentially life-threatening diseases that create physical, psychological, and emotional suffering for young people and their families. Treatment stresses a “safe haven,” a place where there is an empathetic, supportive relationship between the client and therapist, a personal plan to resist peer pressure, as well as group and family counseling with intensive participation by parents.
Referrals for our envisioned TIP-model program would come from community providers who have been unsuccessful in directing targeted youth and their families to community-based services. For example, SIMHS provides emotional health screenings on the College of Staten Island campus and will offer additional access to screening appropriate clients for referral. Grass roots groups will provide another source of referrals.
The SIMHS, in partnership with public and private funders, is grateful that we have been able to serve thousands of youthful trauma victims of Hurricane Sandy. They sought our help and we gave it. We understood and cared, we listened and talked, and they began to heal. This year and in 2014, we are confident that we will also be able to provide urgently needed services to the hundreds of youngsters who have turned to alcohol or drugs to cope with the emotional injuries inflicted by the storm, so they can heal completely and face the future with new confidence.