Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Health News Florida

North Florida Grapples With An Emerging, Hurricane-Induced Mental Health Crisis

A destroyed Business
Credit Morgan Martin
A destroyed Business

Many Hurricane Michael victims are still feeling the effects of the storm.  It not only caused physical damage to the area, but has left scars on the hearts and minds of survivors. 

Smiling To Hide The Pain

In Panama City, an abandoned shopping plaza lies in ruins, its plaster façade on the ground. The metro PCS store at the end of it, is crumpled, as if a bulldozer ran into it. Next door is a small key-making shop. Inside is Judy Woodruff – the bookkeeper at Panhandle key and safe.

“Even though people want to act like [they're] '850 Strong' and this, that and the other. But there’s 

probably not too many of us that don’t cry every day because of what has happened," she says. "When you live in a place that’s beautiful as it is, and then wake up to a place that looks like it’s been bombed, it's really really, sad when [there are] no trees and most buildings are down."

In the heart of Panama City homes, businesses and churches damaged by the storm are still waiting on repairs. That’s not the only damage the storm caused. 

We’ve seen a lot of anxiety that sort of thing and but we also depression, PTSD ," says Mike Barbour, the Assistant Administrator at the Emerald Coast Behavioral Hospital in Panama City. It recently reopened, and in the short time it's been operational, Barbour says he's treated active military servicemen and women, and other adults trying to cope in the aftermath of the storm. 

 “We have only one wing renovated right now that’s safe to admit patients and that is split between military patients and active treatment people who are adults the people who need active treatment for their issues ”,he says.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c4x3T0KF9c

Children Struggle To Cope

Michael's aftermath has been particularly hard on children as well. Bay County School Superintendent Bill Husfelt recently talked about the issue before the State Board of Education. He’s had to refer some 700 children for mental health services since schools reopened. Some ended up being involuntarily committed.

We’ve had 70 Baker Acts since we have reopened November 5th," he told the board, "35 [happened] since February 25 th, 62 since Christmas Break."

According to the National Institute of Health, as many as 43% of children affected by a natural disaster will experience post-traumatic stress disorder and many suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns. Husfelt read a letter written by a teacher about a six-year-old she had to refer for services.                

"When he escalates he’s completely out of control, emotionally and physically. He made his second threat of self-harm. When the counselor arrived, the life management center was full and not taking patients. The parents were told they could take him to Gulf Coast [Regional Hospital's] emergency room, and if not, to Tallahassee or Pensacola ."

Husfelt says more counselors are needed but the school system is having trouble getting them because there is nowhere for anyone to live. Hurricane Michael left more than 10,000 people in Bay County alone, homeless. Rental prices have increased dramatically. Meanwhile, Barbour says the Emerald Coast Behavioral hospital isn’t able to care for children right now.

Prior to the storm we treated children from age four to 17. Right now, that unit is the most damaged in our

Panama City resident Judy Woodruff at her office desk at Panhandle Key & Safe. She and others have struggled emotionally following Hurricane Michael (4/30/19)
Credit Morgan Martin
Panama City resident Judy Woodruff at her office desk at Panhandle Key & Safe. She and others have struggled emotionally following Hurricane Michael (4/30/19)

hospital and it will be late June if we’re lucky to get that open again. So right now we can’t treat kids," he says. "We’re advising people to either go outpatient with us for the adolescence or to go to Life Management or to the hospitals with their kids."

Back at the key shop, Judy Woodruff says the new reality of living among devastation is painful.

It’s been very, very hard and bad and heartbreaking ," she says on life after the storm. 

May is Mental Health Awareness month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline can be reached Monday through Friday at 1-800-950-6264 from 10 a.m. until 6 in the evening. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or know someone who is, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with a trained crisis counselor. 

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Home of a resident after Hurricane Michael
Morgan Martin /
Home of a resident after Hurricane Michael

Damaged Outlet Sign
Morgan Martin /
Damaged Outlet Sign

A destroyed building
Morgan Martin /
A destroyed building

The result of residents losing homes
Morgan Martin /
The result of residents losing homes

A ruined house
Morgan Martin /
A ruined house

A community with damages homes
Morgan Martin /
A community with damages homes

A ravaged trailer home
Morgan Martin /
A ravaged trailer home

A business ripped apart
Morgan Martin /
A business ripped apart

A fallen building
Morgan Martin /
A fallen building

Destruction
Morgan Martin /
Destruction

An alternative lifestyle
Morgan Martin /
An alternative lifestyle

Snapped Trees
Morgan Martin /
Snapped Trees

Debris Cleanup
Morgan Martin /
Debris Cleanup

Gas pump damages
Morgan Martin /
Gas pump damages

Emerald Coast Behavorial Hospital
Morgan Martin /
Emerald Coast Behavorial Hospital