“Moments of Calmness.” In Puerto Rico, Building the Emotional Skills to Cope with Disaster

A new program is focused on increasing post-disaster emotional resilience for the island’s residents.

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Hurricane Maria

Puerto Ricans participate in a yoga session. Basic yoga is one of the core techniques the Center teaches. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine)
Puerto Ricans participate in a yoga session. Basic yoga is one of the core techniques the Center teaches. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine)

Even before Hurricanes Irma and María slammed into Puerto Rico, mental health was a widespread issue on the island.

“You don’t need a natural disaster to feel stressed,” said Nancy Ruiz, one of the facilitators of Puerto Rico’s Center for Mind-Body Medicine. “Everyday problems accumulate as we carry on, and our bodies, like a glass full of water, continue to tolerate it until one day it overflows.”

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Those existing concerns, combined with two destructive hurricanes, put a significant strain on Puerto Ricans’ mental health.

For the past 27 years, the Center for Mind-Body Medicine has been working with communities around the globe to address population-wide psychological trauma. In Hurricane María’s deadly wake, they turned to helping Puerto Rico’s population learn self-care techniques designed to increase their resilience and help them heal – with help from Direct Relief and the pharmaceutical company AbbVie.

In 2019, Direct Relief awarded a grant of more than $160,000, funded by AbbVie, to the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. The grant allowed them to implement Post-Hurricane Healing for Puerto Rico, an island-wide program designed to address the psychological tolls of Hurricanes Irma and María.

A Ripple Effect

The program uses a “train-the-trainer model,” coaching mental health professionals, community leaders, teachers, and others in techniques for meditation, guided imagery, movement, journal writing, and breathing exercises.

These techniques helped community leaders to deal with their own trauma and stress – and then to pass those skills along to their students. The hope is to cause a ripple effect in the communities they serve, increasing resilience and healing on a larger scale.

A concentrative meditation session in a large group setting. Photo was taken prior to the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine)

Dulce del Río Pineda, one of the center’s facilitators, works out of her hometown of Culebra. She’s done similar trainings, but said that one element of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine is unique: “It provides you with knowledge that not only empowers you, but also as a member of your community you can contribute to empower other individuals as well.”

Kids, Parents, and Veterans

Ruiz, a psychologist, has previously worked with Puerto Rico’s Department of Health, offering trainings to faculty in several of the island’s schools. “They were in awe when we practiced the techniques with them, and they wanted everyone to learn those techniques,” she said.

Currently, she is working at the Vimenti School, the first public charter school on the island, located at the Ernesto Ramos Antonini community, which houses a high-risk demographic. She is working to implement and teach mind-body skills to faculty, students, and parents.

Working with parents is essential, Ruiz said. Kids can develop all the necessary skills to deal with their emotions, but if they’re heading back home to a toxic environment, those skills might not help much.

Del Río Pineda has worked with Head Start, an early childhood development program, for the last 20 years. After learning the mind-body skills, she began implementing them with the kids in Culebra. She modifies the trainings for young children – for example, using well-known children’s songs as the basis for breathing exercises, so that they’ll remember how to do them.

The Veterans’ Hospital in Puerto Rico also benefits from the program. Tina Fischer, a senior program manager at the Center, explained that the hospital sees a lot of post-traumatic stress, and using techniques such as drawing and meditation are “building that resilience, giving [veterans] the tools they need to get through a sleepless night or stress at work.”

New Disasters, New Challenges

The Post-Hurricane Healing Program was designed, in part, to prepare people traumatized by past disasters for future emergencies. Trainers just weren’t expecting the island to encounter a new disaster so quickly.

Participants embrace after a group session. The Center said people close, lasting bonds from sharing their personal stories and experiences. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine)
Participants embrace after a group session. The Center said people form close, lasting bonds from sharing their personal stories and experiences. Photo was taken prior to the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine)

But in early 2020, Puerto Rico faced a series of large-scale earthquakes that affected the southern and southwestern regions of the island. Houses were destroyed, medical care was disrupted, and the experience proved traumatic for many.

Center trainees responded by visiting shelters to offer workshops to people in the hardest-hit areas of the island, including Guayanilla, Guánica, and Ponce.

“[Kids] needed those moments of calmness. They didn’t have their homes,” said Ruiz, who worked with displaced children in the shelters. “We combined the skills with play to work with children.”

Shortly after, the Covid-19 pandemic, another kind of disaster, brought new challenges. As people remained in their houses, facilitators knew they had to come up with creative ways to continue providing much-needed skills to face this new emergency.

Many of them began offering self-care and meditation workshops online to reach as many people as possible, since they knew the public health emergency was taking a toll on people’s emotional health. Ruiz said she worked with teachers and parents who felt overwhelmed when working with virtual learning.

For Ruiz, the benefits of this program are countless. “It’s very nice to see that this applies to kids, grownups, and teachers. Everyone learns something, everyone heals in their own time and in their own way,” she said.

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