New Jersey training primary care doctors to screen for post-Sandy trauma

    As hurricane season ramps up again, the New Jersey Department of Health wants to help primary care doctors better treat ongoing trauma from Superstorm Sandy.

    The threat of new storms could reopen emotional scars from Sandy, said Mary O’Dowd, the state commissioner of health.

    “The fact that we’re heading back into hurricane season could trigger additional stress for those people that are still trying to get back to normal,” said O’Dowd. “Primary care providers can be part of the solution.”

    As a part of ongoing triage from that storm, the state has committed $4 million over two years for better mental health evaluation in the 10 hardest hit counties. That money will go to additional staff and training for primary care physicians, who will then screen their regular patients for Sandy-related behavioral health problems.

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    That way, people who would not normally seek out behavioral health services can still get help they need.

    “The goal of the project is to make sure that all of our primary care providers are cognizant of the types of challenges that families – even a year and a half after the storm – could experience,” said O’Dowd.

    Stephanie Mulfinger, director of call center services for the Mental Health Association of New Jersey, said helplines are getting about 200 calls each month from those dealing with Sandy-related fallout.

    “We are seeing lots of new people all the time, and any way to get screening out there is really a benefit and still needed,” said Mulfinger.

    There is preliminary evidence that low-income people displaced by Sandy are filing more health claims.

    “We are seeing increases in post-traumatic stress and drug abuse in our Medicare population,” said O’Dowd.

    A 2014 study by Monmouth University found a relationship between time spent in transitional housing after the storm and mental health problems.

    In April, the state selected 10 providers for the first year. O’Dowd said these providers aim to screen 48,000 during that time.

    Rollout begins at hospitals in each county on July 1.

    For more information on Sandy-related mental health services in New Jersey, you can call call (866) 202-4357.

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