Who's Still Funding Post-Sandy Mental Health Recovery Efforts in New Jersey?

The clean up after a storm like Sandy is a long-term effort. It’s relatively easy for those of us that don’t live in the immediate or surrounding areas to put a storm’s devastation in the back of our heads once it stops being the top news story of the day. But the recovery work can take years, and it involves not just dealing with the physical and financial toll of a "super storm." There's also a mental toll to be reckoned with, especially among the most vulnerable populations.

Nearly two years after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, some families in New Jersey have yet to move back into their homes. To make matters worse, they are struggling to pay for a place to live while paying for repairs on their property so they can get home. Trying to keep it all together in this kind of situation can have a serious and damaging effect on a person’s mental health. Chronic mental health conditions from which people were suffering before the storm are only exacerbated by the additional stress, and can often become acute.

As the biggest foundation in New Jersey, and one of the biggest in U.S., it makes sense that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) would do its part to help recovery efforts after Sandy.

When Hurricane Sandy hit, the foundation jumped to action, providing close to $2.5 million in relief funding to everything from rebuilding projects to providing disaster relief legal services.

But RWJF has also stepped up to help deal with the mental strain caused by the storm and its aftermath. While the foundation is not much of a mental health funder, it doesn’t ignore the issue either. Since 2010, RWJF has awarded nearly $10 million in grants to about 30 mental health focused projects around the country.

Recently, RWJF awarded an $88,000 award to the Mental Health Association of New Jersey (MHANJ). This latest grant supplements the foundation’s initial $735,000 grant awarded to MHANJ in 2013. The funding seeks to look forward to future challenges as much as picks up the pieces from Sandy.

When a disaster hits, one of the major issues faced by a community facility such as a hospital, is capacity—or more specifically, its ability to handle the surge of incoming patients from the storm. Natural disasters create immediate capacity shortages, not only for the facility itself, but also in supplies and staff. The focus of MHANJs work is on the capacity issue as it relates to the ability to address disaster victims’ immediate and long-term mental and behavioral health issues. With help from RWJF, MHANJ is taking the following approach toward those ends: 

  • Continually monitoring the use and capacity of the state’s behavioral health community
  • Responding to the local community’s ongoing behavioral health needs
  • Creating new opportunities for disaster response workers and professionals in an effort to increase their knowledge in recognizing the onset of mental and behavioral health issues
  • Creating a grassroots peer-to-peer outreach and case management program 

Ultimately, what RWJF and MHANJ hope to achieve is to increase the state’s capacity related to the immediate and long-term mental health impact natural disasters have on local communities. This includes creating 1,000 certified trainers under the state’s Mental Health First Aid program, a proactive outreach initiative, strengthened infrastructure to serve disaster victims with mental and behavioral health needs and to provide case management services to the most vulnerable populations.

MHANJ has already taken steps toward achieving those goals, offering a Recovery Peer Outreach Support Teams or RPOST program, providing case management services to the vulnerable populations of Sandy survivors. RPOST is an offshoot of MHANJs existing Peer Outreach Support Team program. Carolyn Beauchamp, President and CEO of MHANJ states:

Members of the most vulnerable populations face extreme difficulties in finding out about, accessing and navigating the support services and systems that are available.” The RPOST program helps alleviate these difficulties by connecting vulnerable populations with the services they need through outreach and community engagement. 

MHANJs efforts are working. Seventy-one-year-old Sandy survivor Joyce Ragland is not only a cancer survivor; she was also dealing with emotional challenges before the storm hit. She was visited by counselors from New Jersey Hope and Healing, who referred her to the RPOST program. Of the experience, Ms. Ragland said:

RPOST Atlantic did everything. They took me looking for places and programs that could help me. They got me my depression medication and helped my family and I find a place to live. They also arranged for help to pay for utility bills, helped me to get clothes and arranged for me to have counseling…They came in and got the ball rolling.