State mental health officials expect to receive millions of federal grant dollars to help residents left with emotional or mental problems after the historic Oct. 4 storm.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is set provide the state about $5 million to hire on-the-ground counselors who will start support groups, refer residents to mental health or substance abuse centers and pass out materials that explain mental health symptoms and where help is available after a disaster, according to William Wells, disaster response coordinator at the S.C. Department of Mental Health.
Wells said state officials hope the grant for the nine-month program will be approved by early March. Once the money is in hand, he said, the department will hire up to 80 more para-professional counselors who will work in counties hit hard by the storm.
The state’s mental health department currently has more than two dozen field workers in disaster-stricken counties, paid for by an earlier, roughly $660,000 FEMA grant, he said.
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Stress, grief and depression can plague disaster survivors for years. And often accompanying those ailments are physical ones, such increased headaches, inability to sleep and weight gain or loss.
For people who have turned to drinking or drugs as coping mechanisms in the past, Wells said, “it’s easy for people to fall back into those patterns of behavior again.”
“We know that after disasters, people experience a great deal of stress and a great deal of grief,” Wells said. “Many people are not able to get their lives back in order. The longer those needs go unmet, the greater the stress, the greater the impact.”
The program’s counselors, who will wear official badges and special T-shirts, will set up locations at shopping centers, knock on doors and attend public meetings to reach as many residents as possible, Wells said.
“Anywhere there are gatherings of people, they are going to try to have some sort of presence,” Wells said.