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Massachusetts legislators call for mental health help in Puerto Rico

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with 10 others in the Massachusetts congressional delegation, sent a letter to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Friday to ask for material regarding the way in which SAMHSA has addressed mental health challenges in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The letter was sent to Elinore McCance-Katz, the assistant secretary at SAMHSA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services meant to develop rehabilitative services and reduce the impact of mental illnesses in America. In the letter, the Massachusetts delegation cited the widespread destruction throughout the islands infrastructure in addition to the surge in mental health issues following the hurricanes.

Warren wrote in an email to The Daily Free Press that she headed the delegation’s visit to Puerto Rico that allowed her to see the immediate destruction caused by the natural disasters.

“Massachusetts is the home to 300,000 Puerto Ricans – and thousands more have come to the Bay State since Hurricane Maria upended their lives,” Warren wrote. “Our fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands continue to experience the mental health challenges triggered by the hurricanes that ripped through their neighborhoods. We need to have their backs.”

Jeanne Clark, 60, of Dorchester, said she is pleased the Massachusetts delegation is pushing for more mental health support for those who need it.

“Mental wellbeing is extremely important for the people of Puerto Rico and they’re going to need as much help as they can get,” Clark said. “With the horrible natural disasters that they’ve been dealing with, I can understand that a lot of their population is struggling.”

Warren wrote that she’s troubled by the accessibility of mental health aids to the island’s inhabitants.

“SAMHSA operates a national network of crisis centers through its Suicide Prevention Lifeline, yet Puerto Rico does not have a Lifeline-affiliated call center – and neither does the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Warren wrote. “It’s unclear whether Puerto Rico has received other federal resources to address the increase in mental health issues on the island.”

In the letter, the Massachusetts lawmakers said they are worried SAMHSA’s mental health services are not sufficiently accessible to the islands’ residents. The delegation said though SAMHSA operates a national network of crisis centers, Puerto Rico doesn’t have a Lifeline-related call center.  

Izzy Marrero, the chairman of the Latino Law Enforcement Group of Boston, a unit meant to motivate and encourage Latinos and other minority groups to consider a career in law enforcement, said there are still families without water, power, and standard medication.

“Puerto Rico is struggling with everything and the situation hasn’t really improved much from when we deployed down there for hurricane relief efforts,” Marrero said. “There definitely has to be an increase in, at the very least, basic medical supplies like insulin, blood pressure medication and things of that nature that are life and death situations for some folks.”

Marrero said the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are mentally strained following the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“The reality is, the people of Puerto Rico are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome — this is a traumatic experience,” Marrero said. “People are legitimately fearing for their own lives. This increases anxiety and exacerbates people who are prone to depression.”

Matt Hayes, 34, of Allston said mental wellbeing is often overlooked during tragedies such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“Those islands are currently still struggling, and I hope to see even more relief efforts, though we’ve done a pretty good job so far,” Sanders said. “A lot of people see the physical damage, but often it’s the mental damage that hurts more.”

Ted McEnroe, the director of external communications for The Boston Foundation, which runs Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico, a fund committed to grassroots relief and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, wrote in an email that necessary requirements such as food, water and shelter are not being met for many island inhabitants.

“The basic infrastructure needs are still massive and widespread,” McEnroe wrote. “With the trauma, loss, sense of dislocation, lack of basic necessities, and stress triggered by living without basic needs for months and months, there is no question that there is a massive mental health toll that requires long term support.”

Joyce Edwards, 33, of Dorchester, said relief efforts often go by the wayside as citizens begin to neglect the issues they were initially supporting.

“The trend with a lot of these relief efforts has been a huge drive to help for a few months, but quickly many people forget,” Edwards said. “We need to keep helping until everything has been solved or until things get better for these people.”

The letter called for a briefing of the delegation on these matters by Feb. 2.

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