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NMSU professor to study mental health of Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico

On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico, becoming one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the U.S territory. Not only did it destroy homes and infrastructure, it killed off most of the island’s agricultural industry and worsened its debt crisis.


Photo of two women
Ivelisse Torres Fernandez, an assistant professor in the Counseling and Educational Psychology department at NMSU’s College of Education, and Jessica Gibbs, co-vice president of the School Psychology Graduate Student Organization at NMSU and a student research assistant for Torres Fernandez, are both leading efforts to provide assistance to the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The SPGSO and ASNMSU have teamed up to collect batteries, hygiene products and other necessities to distribute to Hurricane Maria victims, and Torres Fernandez, a native of Puerto Rico, is helping to distribute those items and is conducting a research study on the mental health of aide workers in Puerto Rico. (NMSU photo by Adriana M. Chávez)
Photo of people standing on a flooded street
Ivelisse Torres Fernandez, an assistant professor in the Counseling and Educational Psychology department at New Mexico State University and a native of Puerto Rico, is helping to distribute donate items such as batteries, flashlights and food to people devastated by Hurricane Maria. Torres Fernandez is also conducting a research study on the mental health of aide workers in Puerto Rico. (NMSU photo by Ivelisse Torres Fernandez)

Months later, about 36 percent of the island is still without electricity, and aid has been slow to reach its residents. Suicide rates, along with cases of depression, anxiety and PTSD, have increased, creating a large mental health crisis. Ivelisse Torres Fernandez, an assistant professor in the Counseling and Educational Psychology department at New Mexico State University’s College of Education, is a native of Puerto Rico and is helping relief efforts by raising money and collecting supplies to take back to the island, but is taking the extra step of creating a study to examine the mental health of aid workers who are not only helping residents cope with the devastating effects of the hurricane, but are themselves victims of the brutal storm.

“For more than 20 hours people experienced strong winds. During the peak of the storm the winds ranged between 120 to 200 mph depending on the part of the island you were in,” Torres Fernandez said. “For over 30 hours homes were pounded with rain. Puerto Rico saw the average yearly rainfall in a day and a half. Immediately after the hurricane made landfall, the full electric grid collapsed and people endured the storm in complete darkness. Some people’s homes imploded because of the high winds. A lot of people thought they were going to die that day.”

Although Torres Fernandez wasn’t in Puerto Rico during the storm, she too had to endure the terror of having to helplessly watch the devastation from afar, worrying about her parents. She didn’t hear from them for two weeks, and during that time didn’t know whether they were dead or alive. Thankfully, they both survived the storm, but many Puerto Ricans were killed and several others are still missing. The exact numbers are unknown.

Over the winter break, Torres Fernandez visited Puerto Rico loaded with donations of batteries, flashlights, hygiene products and other items residents need. After speaking with residents and viewing the devastation first-hand, Torres Fernandez decided to begin researching how people providing mental health services to those in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria are impacted, since the majority of those providing assistance are themselves survivors.

“I wanted to know how do you deal with that,” Torres Fernandez said. “Puerto Rico is in a full-blown mental health crises. Suicide rates are skyrocketing, as well as depression, anxiety and PTSD. This storm has traumatized people, and the majority of people experiencing this haven’t had a history of mental health issues. Many people have panic attacks every time it rains.”

Torres Fernandez said she will be working with Counselors Without Borders, an organization that provides culturally responsive humanitarian counseling in post-disaster emergency situations. Torres Fernandez said her next trip will be March 16-23, during spring break. She will be joined by Counselors Without Borders representatives and researchers from George Mason University to provide support groups as well as distribute items that have been donated on campus at NMSU. Torres Fernandez said she is also planning a crowdfunding campaign to pay for a group of NMSU students to travel to Puerto Rico and provide support such as counseling, cleaning and rebuilding.

NMSU students are also actively involved in outreach efforts by raising money to ship needed items to Puerto Rico, and collecting items on campus.

“The media has stopped covering Puerto Rico, and we need to get it out in the university and the community besides just on social media,” said Jessica Gibbs, co-vice president of the School Psychology Graduate Student Organization at NMSU and a student research assistant for Torres Fernandez. “We need to get people to realize this is still a serious tragedy, especially since there is a lack of medical care for people in Puerto Rico.”

Barbara Gormley, head of the Counseling and Educational Psychology department at NMSU, said hurricane victims are deeply affected not only by the actual storm, but the response in the days that follow.

“This is not the first time that the United States has abandoned hurricane survivors who live in our own country. This is not the first time that it is up to private citizens to do something to respond to the dire straits in which our neighbors find themselves. It is outrageous that basic needs have gone unaddressed by the government once again when mainly black and brown citizens are affected,” Gormley said. “One thing we know as psychologists and counselors who work with trauma in therapy is that it is not just the traumatic event itself that causes the damage, it is also how much support traumatized people have from the surrounding community afterward that predicts whether people recover quickly or slowly. Puerto Rico is resilient, but it will take the work of many private citizens like Ivelisse and her students to help them feel like they are a part of our society again, that they are wanted, welcomed, understood and supported.”

The ASNMSU Department of Community Outreach and the NMSU School Psychology Graduate Student Organization have partnered to send relief to Puerto Rico. The SPGSO and ASNMSU will be collecting supplies in the ASNMSU Office, Corbett Center, Room 205, and the Counseling and Educational Psychology office, O’Donnell Hall, Room 222. Supplies in high demand are batteries (AA, AAA and D sizes), water sanitization tablets, feminine hygiene products, general hygiene products (deodorant, toothpaste, etc.), baby products (diapers and wipes) and non-perishable food products.

A full list of items can be found at http://a.co/elt8gKg, which is an Amazon wish list. Items purchased through this link will be sent directly to Puerto Rico. All collected items will be shipped off by the SPGSO to Puerto Rico. Items will be collected through the end of February.

For more information, contact Gibbs at chitty@nmsu.edu or jorrgibbs@gmail.com, or ASNMSU Director of Community Outreach Adrian Llañez at asnmsuco@nmsu.edu.