The silent storm in children after Hurricane Michael

Schools officials not prepared for increase in mental health cases, PTSD

By Nadeen Yanes - Reporter

PANAMA CITY, Fla. - On a clear Wednesday night, hundreds of seniors in a sea of red caps and gowns listen to their graduation speech at Bay High School's football field. 

"Your senior year was filled with chaos, loss, fear and grief but what we saw was grit, triumph, resilience and good," the principal said at the podium. 

Bay High School is still partially closed after Hurricane Michael. Students have to walk past piles of debris and into 40 portables where classes are held.

Just seven months ago when Hurricane Michael made landfall about 15 miles east, high school senior Brittney Chason didn't think she was going to be able to graduate. 

"It hasn't been the easiest, of course. I mean, I'm homeless but everyone is," she said. 

Chason and her single dad, James Austin, were living in one of the apartment complexes now destroyed. According to school officials, 73% of all multifamily housing are still damaged in the Panama City area. 

"FEMA put us in a hotel, we were there for about two or three months, maybe, but then had to leave, sadly," Chason said. "But now we are in FEMA trailers, so that's nice." 

According to the May 20 update from FEMA,  963 households are occupying travel trailers, mobile homes and direct lease properties across the five counties – Bay, Calhoun, Gadsden, Gulf and Jackson – authorized for direct housing assistance. 

However, beyond the physical damage of these students lives, is another impact of the storm that caught school officials off guard: how it impacted the mental health in children. 

"Never in the history of our county have we had these many mental issues with our students," said Steve Moss, school board chairman for Bay County Schools. "I think we, as a district, I don't think we were prepared to how they were going to react to all those changes." 

According to information given to the school board at a mental health workshop in early May, Bay County Schools had an average of four students committed under the Baker Act per month before the storm.

After the storm, the average is one a day. 

"It's heartbreaking," said Kara Mulksky, also with Bay District Schools. "In the month of March we established two Baker Acts per day. We found that at least 30% of our students are experiencing high signs of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression."

The district has hired an outside consultant who specializes in post-traumatic recovery to help, however Mulksky said the district has received zero funding for mental health after the storm. 

"Here we are about eight months post-hurricane and the need is real," Mulksky said. 

As for Chason, she's felt the stress. 

"God, I can't tell you how many breakdowns I've had," she said. "You just got to find it in yourself to be strong and try not to let all the bad stuff get to you."

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