Short-staffed and historically underfunded, the Virgin Island’s Mental Health Division was struck hard by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Its out-patient clinics on all three islands were damaged. The Eldra Shulterbrandt Facility, the only one in the territory providing long-term care for people who suffer from mental illness, sustained roof damage. And the hospitals on St. Thomas and St. Croix – both of which frequently serve as short-term intake locations for mental patients in crisis – are damaged so badly they are not housing any patients right now.
None of that, however, means that people who suffer from mental illness are being left to fend for themselves. It just means it’s harder than ever to reach them.
Responding to written questions Wednesday, Mental Health Director Berlina Wallace-Berube outlined the ways in which her division is coping with the new normal.
“The (outpatient clinic) properties have been damaged and we continue to work on repairs,” she said. “The DOH (Department of Health) is working on receiving a modular clinic that will allow us to continue to provide services.”
Territory-wide, about 700 clients were registered for outpatient services at the time the hurricanes hit last month, Wallace-Berube reported: approximately 300 on St. Thomas, 300 in Christiansted, 90 in Frederiksted and 26 on St. John.
“The number of clients seen on a daily basis fluctuates depending on the time of year and people’s need for therapeutic services.”
On St. Thomas, the Bethlehem House homeless shelter operated by Catholic Charities of the VI is doubling as a temporary mental health care clinic.
Two nurses and a psychologist from Mental Health are at the shelter weekdays, said CCVI executive director Andrea Shillingford. They dispense medication and offer counseling to “whoever needs” free of charge. Hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In addition, Wallace-Berube said, her staff is in the field on St. Thomas, conducting outreach and meeting with clients at the shelter and in their communities.
On St. Croix, the regular clinics are usable, but are operating on a shortened schedule. At the Frederiksted Health Center people can schedule appointments every day between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., medication management is provided on Mondays and Wednesdays, according to Wallace-Berube. At the Charles Harwood Clinic in Christiansted, hours are 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Counseling and medication management is available Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On Mondays and Wednesdays, staff are in the community providing services.
Besides the partnership with Bethlehem House, Wallace-Berube said the division is grateful to the Association of Virgin Islands Psychologists for assisting the community by providing counseling debriefing.
The Shulterbrandt long-term care facility in Tutu on St. Thomas is usable despite the roof damage, Wallace-Berube said. It is structurally sound and continues to house the 32 patients who were there before the hurricanes. It also maintains a day program of activities open to people who have been discharged from the facility, and typically three to five people participate.
Unsurprisingly, the director said Mental Health is seeing an increase in the numbers of people seeking counseling in the wake of the storms, and she had some advice for all residents:
“Members of the community should pay attention to their bodies and any signs of increased stress. We encourage everyone to have as normal a routine as possible. Exercise, eat balanced meals, get adequate sleep, and see a mental health provider if they are in need of additional support. The Division of Mental health encourages everyone to call or text the disaster counseling helpline to discuss your feelings about the storms. Call 1-800-985-5990; press ‘2’ for Spanish and receive immediate counseling. This free, confidential and multilingual crisis support service is also available via SMS (text “TalkWithUs” for English, and “Hablanos” for Spanish to 1-212-461-4635.”
The division has applied for a disaster counseling grant, Wallace-Berube said.
“That will provide us with funding to have crisis counselors providing services in the community and referring individuals for specialized services.”