Agents of change
In the wake of the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico, a team from the U of M Medical School helps with mental health issues

The problem: More than a year after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, people are still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Studies show 30 to 40 percent of people affected by a natural disaster will develop PTSD.
 
How the U is helping: Since the hurricane, University of Minnesota Medical School physicians, students, and staff have organized several trips to Puerto Rico to provide supplies and medical expertise. In August 2018, the group took its fourth trip, this time focusing on citizens’ mental health issues related to the hurricane. The team of five Medical School faculty and students visited affected areas and presented at a local symposium.
 
What they found: Local partners spoke to the group about an uptick in suicides and PTSD on the island. “The night we flew in, they were expecting a storm to turn into a hurricane. It dissipated, but what struck me was how everyone was reacting in a really triggered way,” says Matej Bajzer, assistant professor in the Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry. “I don’t think it will ever be ‘back to normal’ for the people that went through that disaster.”
 
How gifts help: The Medical School has raised more than $21,000 through crowdfunding for the Puerto Rico Outreach Fund. A Helping Hands Grant from the American Psychiatric Association will allow Medical School students and faculty to teach mindfulness techniques to educators at Lysander Borrero Terry High School in Villalba, Puerto Rico. 
 
Why it matters: “I think we are an agent of change. They see us as people from the outside and not as a political presence,” says Miguel E. Fiol, associate professor in the Medical School’s Department of Neurology. “One lady even called us ‘magicians.’ I think we can have an impact.” 

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