Caring for the emotional well-being of Latter-day Saints assailed by disaster

Recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico likely won’t be counted among the major natural disasters to strike the Americas in recent years.

One man was killed as a direct result of the main quake that rattled the Caribbean island on Jan. 7, and a few others died from medical conditions likely triggered by the disaster. Meanwhile, fewer than a dozen people suffered significant physical injuries.

But make no mistake — the constant rumblings and shakings over the past several weeks have exacted a weighty toll on the emotional well-being of many living in the south end of Puerto Rico, including scores of Latter-day Saints.

When the 6.4-magnitude Jan. 7 temblor forced many people from their homes and into tents, cars and other makeshift shelters, the Church responded quickly with humanitarian provisions such as water, food and hygiene kits.

Read more about the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck Puerto Rico

But mental health relief followed almost immediately afterward.

Under the direction of the Caribbean Area Presidency and Family Services officials from Church headquarters, a team of mental health professionals — including four psychologists, an occupational therapist and a psychiatrist — were dispatched to quake-affected communities such as Ponce, Guayanilla and Guánica.

Their charge was clear: Care for the emotional needs of members in Puerto Rico — including many children struggling to deal with the relentless and unpredictable seismic activity upending their lives.

Working closely with local priesthood and Relief Society leaders, the Church-sponsored mental health professionals worked for 10 consecutive days providing Church leader consultations and individual and family care while organizing emotional support group meetings, said Kevin Broderick, the emergency response program manager from the Church’s Family Services.

A Puerto Rican flag hangs within the rubble, after it was placed there where store owners and family help remove supplies from Ely Mer Mar hardware store, which partially collapsed after an earthquake struck Guanica, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. A 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Puerto Rico before dawn on Tuesday, killing one man, injuring others and collapsing buildings in the southern part of the island.
A Puerto Rican flag hangs within the rubble, after it was placed there where store owners and family help remove supplies from Ely Mer Mar hardware store, which partially collapsed after an earthquake struck Guanica, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. A 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Puerto Rico before dawn on Tuesday, killing one man, injuring others and collapsing buildings in the southern part of the island. Credit: Carlos Giusti, AP Photo

“They have provided,” he added, “psychological first aid.”

Administering “first aid” began by helping quake-weary members understand the emotional responses they were experiencing to the crisis event. Then the mental health professionals focused on identifying effective coping strategies to help quake victims deal with ongoing fears, anxieties and discouragement.

And finally, they provided resources for follow-up counseling, if needed.

The Church’s emergency mental health response in southern Puerto Rico “has helped a lot of people deal with their emotions,” said Ponce Puerto Rico Stake President Franki Ruiz.

Because of the swarm of sizable aftershocks following the main quake, residents remain on edge, especially after dark. Stores and movie theaters in southern Puerto Rico are crowded during daylight hours but quickly empty at sundown.

“Many are simply afraid when night comes,” President Ruiz said.

Asking for emotional assistance has been tricky for many Latter-day Saints. President Ruiz said often when he questions someone affected by the quakes about how they are emotionally coping, they respond, “I’m OK” or “I don’t need help.”

Accepting a case of drinking water or a sack of food proves far easier than asking for emotional support, so many local Church leaders have initiated sit-downs with members they feel may be struggling with their emotions.

In this Friday, Jan. 10 photo, 83-year-old Angel Luis Pacheco sits with family inside a car parked on a hay farm where residents from the Indios neighborhood of Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, have set up shelter after earthquakes and amid aftershocks in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)
In this Friday, Jan. 10 photo, 83-year-old Angel Luis Pacheco sits with family inside a car parked on a hay farm where residents from the Indios neighborhood of Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, have set up shelter after earthquakes and amid aftershocks in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) Credit: AP

 “We’ve been able to assist many people — about 100,” said President Ruiz.

The Ponce stake also hosted a recent family night at the stake center replete with fun activities and games for children that included kid-friendly instruction on coping skills and dealing with ongoing earthquake fears.

A tradition of caring for emotional well-being

Latter-day Saints know well the Church’s history of quick humanitarian response during moments of crisis around the world. Just days ago, President Russell M. Nelson directed Church welfare officials to fly dozens of pallets of needed provisions to China to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

But caring for the mental health of people following disasters remains a key concern.

Providing basic temporal needs such as food, water and shelter is always the first priority, said Broderick. But once life-sustaining elements are met, focus can be placed on responding to disaster-related emotional challenges “that limit a person’s capacity to take care of themselves or take care of another.”

Following a disaster, people process emotions in different ways. Broderick said he often witnesses great strength in people “who step up to the plate” and do miraculous work.

“But for some, it can hit hard. So their ability to problem-solve and regulate their own responses can be limited.”

Broderick remembers working with several “strong, solid young adults” in Haiti in the days following the horrific 2010 earthquake. Many were serving alongside the deployed mental health professionals, spending long days and nights caring for those in need.

Some of the young volunteers soon discovered they weren’t eating. They had lost interest in food. Broderick recognized they were struggling to cope with the tragic scenes all about them and needed mental health assistance to better care for themselves, allowing them to then care for others.

Professionals from the Church’s Family Services have long responded to the emotional needs of members experiencing crisis. When a disaster such as the recent Puerto Rico earthquake hits, Church leaders look first to local resources and mental health professionals. Following massive disasters such as the Haiti earthquake or Hurricane Katrina, teams from Church headquarters are often deployed to work alongside local priesthood leaders and professionals.

Residents survey damage where a home partially collapsed after an earthquake hit Guanica, Puerto Rico, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. A 5.8-magnitude quake hit Puerto Rico before dawn Monday, unleashing small landslides, causing power outages and severely cracking some homes. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Residents survey damage where a home partially collapsed after an earthquake hit Guanica, Puerto Rico, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. A 5.8-magnitude quake hit Puerto Rico before dawn Monday, unleashing small landslides, causing power outages and severely cracking some homes. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Credit: Carlos Giusti, AP Photo

Full-time missionaries are serving in almost all areas of the world. So wherever natural disasters strike, there are likely elders or sisters affected. Again, caring for the emotional well-being of missionaries is a key priority for Broderick and his colleagues.

Working closely with mission presidents and their companions, Family Services can facilitate counseling with individual missionaries and groups of missionaries.

Additionally, the Church’s Missionary Department has well-established resources in areas throughout the world to assist with mental health care when needed.