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Stress from hurricanes builds in Florida

/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s not just roofs that have come apart and walls that are falling down. After four hurricanes in six weeks, many people in Florida are suffering emotional breakdowns.

Mental health centers have been flooded with calls from people distraught, depressed or anxious, and authorities say suicides and domestic violence are up in some places.

At an enormous, crowded relief station at a fairgrounds, one woman climbed out of her car before she reached the end of the line and began screaming, “I can’t take this anymore! I don’t want to do this anymore!” Relief workers calmed her before taking her to a hospital for treatment.

'I started crying and couldn’t stop'

For another woman, Delores Davis, the stress started taking its toll three weeks ago after Hurricane Frances smashed her windows, flooded her carpets and forced her to throw away food she could not afford to replace.

“The first one, I stayed strong. But this second one, I started crying and couldn’t stop,” Davis said as she hugged her two oldest children to her chest. “I tell them God will see us through, but I can’t control all the hurt that I feel.”

Davis said she has tried calling the American Red Cross hot line to find a counselor, but clogged phone lines kept her from reaching anyone.

Emotional strain likely to worsen

Mental health experts caution that the emotional strain will worsen in the next few weeks as numbness wears off and people grasp the devastation around them. Authorities are warning of an increase in alcohol and drug use, as well as child abuse and other violence.

“This is a time when a great majority of people show their strength of character and act on that to help others, and some get so stressed out that they hurt others,” Gov. Jeb Bush said. “We’ve got provide support for them so it doesn’t happen.”

Residents have besieged mental health centers with calls for help since Charley struck Florida’s southwestern coast in mid-August, and clinics and hospitals have been overwhelmed since Jeanne.

“The stress and anxiety seemed to escalate exponentially,” said Christine Cauffield, chief executive of Coastal Behavioral Healthcare in Southwest Florida, where calls increased 150 percent in August and September compared with last year.

Suicides in the southwestern section of the state have increased 13 percent since Charley struck on Aug. 13, compared with previous years, she said. Domestic violence incidents have also risen, state officials said, and the governor and his wife planned a public awareness campaign to offer help.

“We are slammed with people that just are not able to cope,” Cauffield said.

Stress particularly hard on children

The time it takes to get back to normal can seem the longest to children, whose regular routines are scrambled with school closings and hours inside steamy houses. Debris and downed power lines make playing outside dangerous.

Counselors try to help children understand their feelings are normal.

“This is not therapy. It’s letting them know it’s normal, it’s hard, and helping them understand it will get better,” said Capt. Peter Delany, a social worker with the U.S. Public Health Service working in Daytona Beach.

Counselors urge parents to try to return to pieces of their regular routines — even sticking to the normal bedtime in a motel or having cereal for breakfast on the front porch.

Stressed-out counselors have even sought help themselves. Many relief workers live in communities struck by hurricanes and have had no time to straighten out their own lives before helping others.

“To them, it’s not been a number of storms. It’s been one long disaster for them. It’s getting to a point that’s too overwhelming,” Delany said.