Mental Health Issues on rise in USVI after 2017 Hurricanes

Lisa Forde

In a recent article by NPR, a mental health issue has risen since the devasting Category 5 storms Irma and Maria hit the US territory. The storms have impacted students throughout the territory, and have accounted for many behavioral issues. 

NPR Reports the following: More than a year and a half after two major hurricanes struck the U.S. Virgin Islands, the effects of the storms are still obvious. Many homes are uninhabitable. On others, blue tarps covering roofs are the only thing keeping the rain out.

But the storms had another, less visible impact: on the mental health of island residents. Vincentia Paul-Constantin, a mental health counselor who works with children in the public schools says, “We see … regression in behaviors, especially with our little ones who had been potty-trained, reverted to using diapers.” Among older children, Paul-Constantin says, “We see a lot of frustration, cognitive impairment, hopelessness, and despair.”

She traces it back to September of 2017 when two Category 5 hurricanes struck the U.S. territory within a two week period. On St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas, many people lost their roofs and most of their possessions. Much of the islands went for weeks without power, running water or reliable food supply. A woman who lived through it says, “It was a bit frustrating to have to go through such a traumatic experience after the hurricanes, not having access to anything.”

Because of concerns about her privacy, she asked that we not use her name. In some ways she says, the storms and recovery were even harder on her 6-year-old son. He was starting school at a chaotic time. Because many buildings were damaged, schools doubled their enrollment, and went to two sessions a day, with each session lasting four hours. Her son, she says, was overwhelmed and unable to adjust. “He was pretty much disoriented,” she says. He’s getting counseling now and it’s helped. But many children have more serious problems.

Schools returned to their normal schedule in October. With the disruption of the hurricanes and a year of shortened class days, Principal Lisa Ford at Cancryn Junior High School in St. Thomas says students have fallen behind where they should be. And behavioral problems, always present, have gotten worse. “Where it would be one or two children,” Ford says, “now it is 10 children in the classroom acting up and you’re trying to settle all these children. We’re also seeing an increase in children that need mental health assistance.”

Lisa Forde
At Cancryn Junior High School, principal Lisa Ford says since the hurricanes, there has been an increase of children with behavioral problems in need of counseling. Image: Greg Allen/NPR

Ford says she doesn’t know if it’s because of the hurricanes, the slow recovery, or all the free time students had last year when they were on a half-day schedule. She sees the behavioral issues in a variety of ways: “They show up in defiance, actual defiance to authority. We have children who are sleeping in the middle of the day … You try to wake them up, they become angry. And maybe that’s what we’re seeing — a lot of anger and defiance.”