Emotions strained in stormy Florida
Sep. 29, 2004
JILL BARTON, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Violence, suicide up, authorities say
Calls flood mental health centres


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—It's not just roofs that have come apart and walls that are falling down. After four hurricanes in six weeks, many people in Florida are suffering emotional breakdowns.

Mental health centres have been flooded with calls from people distraught, depressed or anxious, and authorities say suicides and domestic violence are up in some places.

At an enormous, crowded relief station at a fairgrounds, one woman climbed out of her car before she reached the end of the line and began screaming, "I can't take this anymore! I don't want to do this anymore!" Relief workers calmed her before taking her to a hospital for treatment.

For another woman, Delores Davis, the stress started taking its toll three weeks ago after Hurricane Frances smashed her windows, flooded her carpets and forced her to throw away food she could not afford to replace.

This week, after Hurricane Jeanne took a swipe at her apartment over the weekend, she found herself waiting again at a relief station under a relentless sun. She managed to get a bag of ice, but wondered where she might find water or a meal for her three children. Relief workers had no answers.

"The first one, I stayed strong. But this second one, I started crying and couldn't stop," Davis said as she hugged her two oldest children to her chest. "I tell them God will see us through, but I can't control all the hurt that I feel.''

Davis said she has tried calling the American Red Cross hotline to find a counsellor, but clogged phone lines kept her from reaching anyone.

Mental health experts caution that the emotional strain will worsen in the next few weeks as numbness wears off and people grasp the devastation around them. Authorities are warning of an increase in alcohol and drug use, as well as child abuse and other violence.

"This is a time when a great majority of people show their strength of character and act on that to help others, and some get so stressed out that they hurt others," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "We've got to provide support for them so it doesn't happen.''

Residents have besieged mental health centres with calls for help since Charley struck Florida's southwestern coast in mid-August, and clinics and hospitals have been overwhelmed since Jeanne.

"The stress and anxiety seemed to escalate exponentially,'' said Christine Cauffield, chief executive of Coastal Behavioral Healthcare in southwest Florida, where calls increased 150 per cent in August and September compared with last year.

Suicides in the southwestern section of the state have increased 13 per cent since Charley struck on Aug. 13, compared with previous years, she said. Domestic violence incidents have also risen, state officials said, and the governor and his wife planned a public awareness campaign to offer help.

"We are slammed with people that just are not able to cope,'' Cauffield said.

The time it takes to get back to normal can seem the longest to children, whose regular routines are scrambled with schools being closed. Debris and downed power lines make playing outside dangerous.

Counsellors try to help children understand their feelings are normal.

"This is not therapy. It's letting them know it's normal, it's hard, and helping them understand it will get better," said Capt. Peter Delany, a social worker with the U.S. Public Health Service working in Daytona Beach.

Counsellors urge parents to try to return to pieces of their regular routines — even sticking to the normal bedtime in a motel or having cereal for breakfast on the porch.

Stressed-out counsellors have even sought help themselves. Many relief workers live in communities struck by hurricanes and have had no time to straighten out their own lives before helping others.

"To them, it's not been a number of storms. It's been one long disaster for them. It's getting to a point that's too overwhelming," Delany said.

Meteorologists warn Floridians that their trials may not be over yet. The hurricane season does not end until Nov. 30.

Jorge Aguirre, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said: "This may only be a brief break. It's not over until it's over.''