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Still working to repair minds after Hurricane Sandy

November 19, 2012
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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Although it’s been weeks since Hurricane Sandy touched down on the East Coast, the repairing of homes and minds continues.  Two weekends ago, three therapists from Lifescape Solutions, a drug treatment center in Delray Beach, Florida, volunteered their time and efforts in Hamilton, New Jersey.  Hamilton, one of the townships greatly impacted by the hurricane, is located almost directly in between Philadelphia and Staten Island, about 30 miles off the coast.   

One of the therapists, Philip Diaz, MSW, serves on the board of directors for the Recovery Advocates of America.  This group works to fight drug addiction through free community interventions, family support, and educational workshops.   He explains that through this connection, he was able to recognize that services were needed in areas affected by the powerful storm, and he gathered some of his associates to travel north with him.

Diaz, who has been in the field for over 30 years, spells out the two types of trauma that need to be addressed: acute trauma and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  “With acute trauma, if in that first 48 hours after the trauma has occurred, someone talks with you and debriefs you, you can avoid having the symptoms of PTSD which can be really huge and can be lots of things— sleeplessness, panic attacks, flashbacks, etc.”

Diaz says the goal of their trip was to work with families who had experienced previous trauma to get them through the trauma related to the storm right away.  In some cases, these people had children who were drug addicts so they had been through previous trauma in that way, he says. Some of these people still have no electricity so they have current trauma and some have lost their homes and everything they owned.

“When you have a traumatic situation, it can trigger other traumas that a person has had in the past and that was the problem here,” Diaz explains. 

The other two therapists who were with Diaz were Lisa Alleva, PhD, and Paul Alleva, MSW, who are both hypnotherapists.  Diaz, a psychotherapist, says that throughout the three 10-hour days they spent in Hamilton, he was leading various workshops and educating community members on how to deal with trauma while his two colleagues were providing free hypnotherapy sessions.

The three therapists helped around 50 people while visiting Hamilton.  About 30 people attended the workshops, estimates Diaz, and each hypnotherapist saw about 10 people.

Being from Florida, Diaz says, his group “gets it.”   They know what it’s like because they’ve experienced so many hurricanes in their own communities.  Diaz says they’re planning on going back again next month and will continue going back for as long as it takes.   

An important group they’re working with is the children, Diaz says.  He explains that young children might get triggered every time they hear the phrase “storm warning,” for example.  “The whole thing about trauma is time, so something that happened today gets confused to be happening all the time.  The person continues to experience the situation way after it’s over, because the brain has not computed that it’s over.”

Diaz says it’s important for counselor to be well-rounded in order to be prepared to help in these types of situations.  “Some of the best first responders for situations like this are addiction workers with experience working with trauma because both issues become prevalent during a crisis.”