Mental Health Volunteers Respond to Puerto Rico’s Earthquakes

February 18, 2020

Twenty-six bilingual mental health professionals from six GNYHA member health systems arrived in Puerto Rico on February 3 to assist people traumatized by months of earthquakes and aftershocks that battered the island’s southern coast. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and GNYHA had called on mental health professionals to volunteer for service in Puerto Rico.

During the group’s orientation after landing, New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, Secretary of State Rossana Rosado, and State Assembly Member Michael Blake (D-Bronx) discussed the damage to the island’s infrastructure and emphasized the importance of the work the volunteers would do. Susana Roig, Administrator of ASSMCA (Puerto Rico’s Administration of Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services), introduced members of her team—including Dr. Monserrat Allende, an expert in post-disaster mental health—who worked with the volunteers during their week of service.

Volunteers from Montefiore Health System, Northwell Health, Catholic Health Services of Long Island, Medisys Health Network, and Mount Sinai Health spent the week canvassing households located in neighborhoods that were particularly hard hit, including Guanica, Ponce, Villalba, and Guayanilla. In one day, they canvassed 49 households, frequently meeting with several family members at once.

Physicians meet with teachers at a base camp.

Physiatrists from Medisys Health, Montefiore Health, and ASSMCA provided mental health services at day camps, including one located near the Penuelas base camp. At the day camps, volunteer counselors and teachers supervised hundreds of children and adolescents. The psychiatrists grouped the youths by age and offered group therapy services. The doctors also instructed the camp supervisors on how to identify someone who is experiencing emotional-behavioral issues.

Mental health providers from ASSMCA, Medisys Health Network, Mount Sinai Health, and Catholic Health Services of Long Island and GNYHA staff take a break from canvassing homes in Guayanilla.

A telemedicine team from NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital visited a disaster recovery center to establish the foundation for a telemedicine initiative for residents and practitioners of Puerto Rico. The team also tested equipment and identified several locations that could support the telemedicine effort, which will continue to assist the community for months ahead.

GNYHA worked closely with Governor Cuomo’s office and the New York State Department of Health on this undertaking, and GNYHA President Kenneth E. Raske joined Governor Cuomo at a press conference the day before the deployment.

One of the makeshift living arrangements that are common in Puerto Rico’s affected communities.