Minnesota doctors plan to advance mental health response in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

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Ever since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, a group of Minnesota-based medical professionals has extended relief on the island during several organized mission trips.

“Studies show 40-50 percent of people impacted by a natural disaster will develop PTSD," said Dr. Fiol. "Can you imagine, two and a half million people? 50 percent of them suffering from PTSD? That would be a serious drain on the system."

Ten months after the devastation, with hurricane season in full swing, the island remains especially vulnerable.

“To put it bluntly, I think should Puerto Rico have another natural disaster it could collapse as a society,” said Dr. Miguel Fiol of the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Dr. Fiol, a neurologist, returned from his most recent mission in Puerto Rico earlier this month. He’s now working to mobilize another team of psychiatrists for his fifth trip, to further address the island’s mental health crisis.

“Don’t think things are okay because they’re not,” Dr. Fiol said.

With FEMA now facing two federal lawsuits calling for the release of disaster response records, the numbers remain murky. Dr. Fiol, however, tells Fox 9 the government plans to close at least 250 island schools and some 200 families are still without power. He says the lingering distress continues to raise mental health concerns.

“The latest figure we have from late last year was that there was like a 30 percent increase in suicide rate, which is significant,” said Dr. Fiol.

With the support of the U's medical school, a Tuesday night meeting of the minds spearheaded by Fiol addressed how the doctors will continue to address both medical and mental health issues on the island.

“We’re going to draw up an action agenda,” said Dr. Fiol. “What are we going to do about the situation in Puerto Rico?”

“This is the first trip that had any focus on mental health,” said Dr. Eduardo Colon, chief of the psychiatry department at Hennepin Healthcare. Colon, another Puerto Rican native in Minnesota, also joined Dr. Fiol on the most recent outreach mission.

As hurricane season hovers over the island through November, even from thousands of miles away, the team prepares to help address the vulnerability with "trauma-informed" care. 

“A lot of people on the island cannot believe that it’s taken this long to get any help,” said Dr. Colon.
“We don’t want people to forget Puerto Rico,” said Dr. Fiol. “That’s the main message.” 

The American Psychiatric Association has issued a $5,000 grant to help University of Minnesota medical students provide aid to the island's young people, who are considered among the most vulnerable.